Parashat Korah: Out of the desert

“You [Korah] seek also the priesthood?” (Numbers 16:10)

June 11, 2010 16:24
3 minute read.
moses 88

moses 88. (photo credit: )

“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 protected them.

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.

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