Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. [Numbers. 16:1-2]
Usually, new characters in a book or play receive some introduction. The Torah introduced the patriarchs and matriarchs as well as Moses and Aaron. But here in our Torah reading this week, Korah is not introduced. He swaggers in ready for action, perhaps the equivalent of the gunslinger who pushes past the swinging doors of a saloon just waiting for a fight.
And that’s what Korah was all about — an extremely rich man who wanted power and was willing to buy it, regardless of cost.
Korah was the first cousin of Moses. They both grew up in Egypt. On the eve of the liberation of the Israelites, Moses went to find the bones of Joseph the son of Jacob. Although not a direct descendant, Moses was intent on honoring a promise elicited by Joseph from his brothers not to leave their younger brother in Egypt. Moses was told that Joseph’s remains were in a casket at the bottom of the Nile River.
Following Moses to the Nile was his little cousin Korah. He wasn’t interested in helping Moses extricate Joseph. Instead, Korah wanted to find the vast treasure buried with Joseph. Both cousins found their target. Moses brought Joseph’s remains with him during what turned out to be the 40-year sojourn in the desert. Korah found the treasure and became the richest man in Israel, if not the world.
But the funny thing about the super-rich is that they get bored with their fortunes. They want to attain power that money can buy. They want to tell themselves that their newly acquired authority will safeguard their riches, family and keep the people beholden to them forever.
That is the very first verse of the Torah portion Korah [And by the way, how did he get a Torah portion named after him?] “And Korah took…” The word “took” usually refers to a commercial transaction. This case was no different. Korah bought the prominent members of Israelite society, whether the princes of tribes, the Sanhedrin, the famous, the movers and shakers. They came out to 250 people. For Korah, this was chump change.
Now, Korah needed a cause to campaign on and overthrow the existing regime of Moses and Aaron. He posed as a reformer, a man devoted to social justice. He accused Moses of acting on his own to transfer the priesthood from the first born to the Levites. He pointed to Aaron, the high priest, and screamed “nepotism!”
Korah then addressed to his own position in the Levite tribe. He said that Moses knew that Korah was against taking power from the people and placing it in the hands of relatives. That’s why Korah had not been appointed prince of his tribe, rather passed over for a younger member.
But that issue was not seen as sufficient to mobilize the masses against Moses and Aaron. So, Korah exploited the plight of the generation of Israelites between the ages of 20 and 60, destined to die in the desert because of the sins of the spies. The doomed represented hundreds of thousands of people, and they were looking for a savior.
Here Korah had help from his closest advisers — Dotan and Aviram. They came from the tribe of Reuben, the first born of Jacob who lost his senior position among the brothers to Joseph. Dotan and Aviram could appeal to their tribesmen and argue that Korah’s fight was their fight. His campaign to remove Aaron from the priesthood and return it to the first-born Israelites would restore Reuben to his rightful place.
Dotan and Aviram were master image-makers. They could convince the masses that white is black, and right is wrong. While Korah stood above the fray, his two advisers baited Moses. He was the cause of all the misfortunes of the Israelites. They never should have left Egypt.
Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us? [Numbers. 16:13]
Soon, Korah succeeded in standing reality on its head. Egypt was not a land of slavery. It had been a fine place for the Jews and marked their future. Moses was not a liberator rather an enslaver. Korah claimed that he did not represent a minority of 250 rather a majority, and G-d always honors the majority.
Unlike previous crises, Moses did not cry to G-d for help. He knew exactly what to do with a gunslinger who comes to town itching for a showdown. He told Korah to show up the following day to perform the holiest of services in the Tabernacle — the burning of the incense. Opposite Korah would be Moses and Aaron with incense. Let G-d decide.
For his part, G-d had one piece of advice. “Please get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins.” [Numbers. 16:26]
The end was quick. Korah and his pals, many of whom quietly foresaw the results, were swept away like dust. The earth opened and swallowed them. Their families, who went along for the ride, met the same fate. Korah’s riches disappeared as well. The thousands of Israelites who had waited for a handout screamed in agony. They tried to maintain Korah’s false campaign and met their end in a plague.
For a while, Korah appeared unstoppable. He had the money, the power, the elite, the media, the narrative and everything else necessary to dominate the masses. But Israel was and is a nation of G-d, and He is not impressed with polls, summits, official statements and talking heads. He does not recognize a majority based on evil.
Funny, how few of us remember that.