Parashat Korah: Opening doors or blurring lines

The sages of the Midrash wondered about Korah getting caught up in this unfortunate event: “Korah was a smart man; what did he see in this nonsense?”

June 26, 2019 19:58
3 minute read.
Parashat Korah: Opening doors or blurring lines

Korah rebelled against Moses’s leadership.. (photo credit: SCREENSHOT VIA BIMBAM/VIMEO)


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This week’s Torah portion is called Korah, named for the main character in the parasha, Korah, who rebelled against Moses’s leadership.

As the parasha describes, Korah – along with two questionable characters named Datan and Aviram – led a rebellion against Moses that swept along 250 respectable people from among the nation’s elite.

The rebellion was so strong that it could not be dealt with naturally, and Moses needed a supernatural miracle. The earth opened up and swallowed Korah and his fellow rebels. Only then did the rebellion quiet down.

The sages of the Midrash wondered about Korah getting caught up in this unfortunate event: “Korah was a smart man; what did he see in this nonsense?”

And then they answer: “Rather, his eye led him astray. He saw a chain of greatness would rise from him – Samuel, who was equal to Moses and Aaron.... He said: Is it possible that this greatness is to come from me and I should be silent?” (Numbers Raba 18:8).
Korah envisioned his descendant, Samuel the Prophet, and this led him to rebel against Moses.

Let us examine this answer and see where Korah erred and how Samuel is related to this error.

What did Korah want? What did he want to change about Moses’s leadership? Let’s listen to what he said:

“They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?’” (Numbers 16:3).

Korah wanted to open the Sanctuary to the masses, to liberate the nation from its dependence on Moses and Aaron, to determine new regulations by which to blur the separation between the holy and the profane, between the Sanctuary and the camp, between the priesthood and the world outside it. The nation would take its fate into its own hands and would stop being led by Moses’s prophecy. This was a rebellion against Moses, against prophecy, against national hierarchy. This was not a holy rebellion, but, rather, a rebellion against holiness!

THE SAGES of the Midrash who made the comparison between the Prophet Samuel and Korah expressed the understanding that in Samuel’s leadership, he took from Korah the positive aspects of the rebellion, but did not adopt its negative aspects.

Samuel was born in the generation of the Tabernacle – situated then in Shiloh and administered corruptly by Hofni and Pinhas, the sons of Eli the priest.

“And Eli’s sons, unscrupulous men, knew not the Lord. And this was the due of the priests from the people... the servant of the priest would come... everything that the fork would pick up, the priest would take therewith.... And he would say, ‘No, but now you shall give. And if not, I shall take by force.’ And the sin of the lads was great... they would lie with the women who congregated at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Samuel II, 2:12-22).

When Samuel grew up, he warned Eli in the name of God, “I am about to execute judgment upon his household forever!” (ibid. 3:13). Then we read the following verse that points even more in the direction of the rebellion that Samuel led: “And Samuel lay down until the morning, and he opened the doors of the House of the Lord” (ibid. 15).

Samuel grew in stature and became a leader of the nation. But he didn’t surround himself with servants, yes-men and confidants. Samuel busied himself with judgment but did not sit in an ivory tower, expecting the simple citizenry to come to him. On the contrary, he set out and wandered around the cities of the Land of Israel, offering his services to the nation – for free.

Samuel opened the doors of the Sanctuary, went down to the people, and thereby reminds us of Korah, who claimed that “the entire congregation are all holy.” But Samuel does not make Korah’s mistake and does not blur the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Korah, swept up in a rebellion against Moses and prophecy, lost the positive aspect of this, but left it to his grandson Samuel.■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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