J.J Gross

Parshat Korah: What did Korah really covet?

וַיַּקְרֵב֙ אֹֽתְךָ֔ וְאֶת־כְּל־אַחֶ֥יךָ בְנֵי־לֵוִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֖ם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּֽה׃
He drew you near, and all your brothers, the sons of Levi with you, and now you seek the kehunah as well?

וְאַהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י (תלונו) [תַלִּ֖ינוּ] עָלָֽיו׃…
…for what is Aaron that you should complain against him?”

Bamidbar/Numbers 16:10-11

Much has been written about Korah, most of it speculative, conjectural, fantastic. But the one question which is not asked is why did Korah want to replace Aharon rather than Moshe. After all, if he felt he was the right man for leadership why settle for vice president when the presidential chair was begging for a more suitable candidate?

As well, the job of the Kohen Gadol/High Priest would appear much more mundane and demanding than that of an all-purpose leader. A Kohen Gadol must remain pure at all times. His conjugal options are limited. His presence in the Mishkan/Tabernacle is mandatory, and his sacral obligations are time-consuming, time sensitive, and not always pleasant.

By contrast, Moshe’s job description is far more fluid. He can come and go as he pleases. He can speak his mind. He has no defined office hours. And he doesn’t have to slaughter animals, sprinkle their blood and turn ashes as part of his job description.

What we do know about Korah is that he was very rich, perhaps the wealthiest Israelite in the desert. The Talmud, with its penchant for fables, regales us with descriptions, most likely fanciful, of his thousands of albino donkeys laden with treasure locked in impregnable bags with special leather keys. Surely a man like this had enough. Why would he want more? What could he possibly want with the burdens of the priesthood?

The same question might be asked of the Borgias, the rapacious family of Spanish oligarchs who usurped the Roman Catholic papacy in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Of what possible interest could the high priesthood of Roman Catholicism hold for men who already had it all?

The key to understanding Korah’s challenge lies in the very fact of his preference for Aharon’s job rather than that of Moshe.

To a mogul like Korah, the fundamental difference between Moshe and Aharon was that Moshe’s title was not hereditary while Aharon’s was. Moshe could not bequeath his title to his progeny. Aharon could.

Ultimately there is much greater power in a hereditary fiefdom than in a closed-ended term of office.

For Korah this meant that the Kehunah, the priesthood, like personal wealth, could be passed along to future generations. And the combination of money and priestly prestige would make it virtually impossible – so he thought – to undo his dynasty. The concentration of material power on the one hand, and spiritual power on the other, seemed unbeatable — and only he had both the pedigree and the means to pull it off.

The Borgias did exactly the same during the Renaissance. They used their money, influence and utter lack of morals to seize control of the Vatican. They violated every vow of celibacy, poverty and obedience in order to enjoy both temporal and spiritual power, including having children who would fill key ecclesiastical, military and commercial positions.

Had Korah succeeded in his quest, he would have been the Pope Alexander VI of his time — a corrupt high priest with unlimited funds, answerable to no one and free, if it suited him, to indulge in adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder as we saw fit.

Wealth and the power of wealth can lead some to a life of noblesse oblige and a sense of responsibility for the greater welfare of society. Sadly, this is the exception. More often, wealth leads to excess, especially an excessive sense of entitlement. More is never enough: More money. More things. More power.

Above all, unbridled wealth leads to a desire for immortality, which can only be achieved through dynastic continuity.

Money alone is no guarantee of such continuity. Economies shift. Mistakes are made. Generational fertility can dilute the loot. But the priesthood, well that is something else entirely. Because the Jewish priesthood is genetic. The children of Aharon would be priests forever. And priests have power. For Korah, like for the Borgias, claiming the kehunah was the only way to consolidate power in a manner that would guarantee immortality by giving his children and grandchildren for all generations – regardless of their intellectual or spiritual gifts – power over the entire nation of Israel.

This might explain why he challenged Moshe and Aharon to begin with, and why it was Aharon’s portfolio that he coveted specifically.




About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.