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“You [Korah] seek also the priesthood?” (Numbers 16:10)
What was the real attraction of Korah’s rebellion for all the Hebrews? There must have been more to it than mere personal gain, since not a single member of the congregation took a stand on behalf of Moses.
At this time, the scouts had pretty much squelched the dream of conquering Israel, so the question was where to go? There were Hebrews represented by Dathan and Abiram who probably never wanted to leave Egypt in the first place and now yearned to return there. They restate that desire in this week’s portion when they taunt Moses, “Is it not enough that you took us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the desert, that you must also rule over us...?” (Numbers 16:13).
But Korah is clearly coming from an altogether different place: “…for the entire congregation is holy and have God in their midst. Why must you lift yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3). Moses charges Korah with wanting to be a holy kohen-priest (16:10), and therefore tests Korah and his group with the censers of incense.
I believe that Korah is going further than that: He wants all
the Hebrews to become kohen-priests. After all, “the entire congregation is holy and have God in their midst” – both literally in terms of being created in God’s image and figuratively in terms of their relationship to the Sanctuary. And did not everyone hear God’s voice at Sinai, and did not Moses charge the whole assembly with being a “kingdom of kohen-priests”? (Exodus 19:6) And so Korah logically maintains that the best place for the Hebrews to carry out their function as divine agents is by staying where they are – in the desert.
The desert experience provided a magnificent opportunity for all
Israelites to devote themselves to the study of Torah without
distractions. No one had private land to till, everyone received their
portion of manna delivered to the door, and the clouds of glory
So why is Korah punished? I believe it is because he didn’t understand
the purpose of a Jewish state. God doesn’t only desire an exalted,
“holy” nation that lives in sandy isolation. God chose Abraham to
become a blessing for the world (Genesis 12:3) and revealed His Law to
us so we can teach it to all of humanity. The true function of a kohen
is to teach, and the kingdom of kohanim exists to teach the world
(Exodus 19:6, Seforno). But we can only teach others if we can solve
our own national and ethical problems by means of the divinely bestowed
wisdom of Torah.
God did not choose us to warm ourselves alone with a fur coat; He chose
us, rather, to light a fire which will bring the warmth of peace to all
of humanity. This is to be done from a land where we can imbue every
aspect or our agricultural, industrial, sociological and political
lives with the compassionate righteousness and moral justice of His
Torah. We dare not stay in the desert; we must become a nation-state
and join history!
And this is the egregious error of Dathan and Abiram. Perhaps they,
too, were “religious” Hebrews who felt the best way to influence the
world would be to live in Thebes, Cairo or New York and teach from
there; hence their desire to return to Egypt. But you cannot truly
influence a nation unless you are in charge of its government and
setting the limits of its societal structures. Otherwise, you become
compromised by that nation which “allows” you in.
This is the profound lesson we must learn from Joseph, Grand Vizier of
Egypt. He rises to unique, perhaps unprecedented, greatness. He even
succeeds in teaching Pharaoh about the Creator of heaven and earth
(Genesis 41:38). But when he must discharge the economic policies of
Egypt, he enslaves all Egyptians, making the Egyptian monarch a
totalitarian despot who “owns” all his subjects (Gen. 47:13-27). In
his service to another nation and its ruler, Joseph was forced to
compromise the cardinal message of creation: that every human being,
created in God’s image, must be free and inviolate. Such uniquely
Jewish lessons can only be expressed from our own homeland, as a
significant actor on the stage of nations.The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone
Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.