Burning farmland 521.
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
In this week’s Torah portion, the situation in the desert goes from bad to worse, from the refusal of the Israelites to conquer Israel (arising from the sin of the scouts) to an actual mutiny against Moses. Why would so many Israelites ignore the many miracles of the Exodus and display such ingratitude to their leader? After all, Moses took an enslaved people and – at enormous personal sacrifice – forged them into a God-enthused, sensitive, responsible and independent nation.
To deepen our inquiry, it would appear that there were two rebellions, and two different causes at that.
The key to understanding what really caused the desert mutinies rests in an insight expressed by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, who picks up on the fact that two different punishments were meted out to the rebels: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed up” one group (Numbers 16:32), and “Fire came forth from the Lord and devoured the 250 bearers of incense,” in the other group (Num. 16:35).
There is even a difference of opinion as to which group Korah belonged
to. “There are those who say that Korah was among those swallowed up by
the earth... and there those who say he was burnt to death... It is my
opinion that only Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth, and
Korah was burnt together with the incense bearers...” (Ibn Ezra to
Let us revisit the biblical text and attempt to reconstruct what actually occurred.
Korah may have couched his words in the palatable tones of a democrat, but he was more of a demagogue.
“It’s enough for you,” he rants, “because the entire congregation is all
holy and God is in their midst; why do you raise yourselves up above
the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
His major rebellion is against Aaron; he wants to be High Priest! Moses
sees through his words, and charges the rebel with “seeking also the
priesthood” and casting aspersions on Aaron (Num. 16:5-11).
Therefore, he challenges Korah to offer up incense as a sacrifice to God – which is ordinarily a priestly responsibility.
This will also explain why the famed Rebbe of Kotzk refers to Korah as
the “holy grandfather.” After all, Korah was only seeking a closer
relationship to God, a more central role in the divine service. He, like
Nadab and Abihu (the sons of Aaron) before him, wished only to bring an
offering to the Lord – even if he hadn’t been commanded to do so. He
aspired to sanctity, but refused to accept the fact that there are
divine limits upon the sacred, that one must be deemed worthy to come
close to the divine. And so Korah and his band of followers are consumed
by a fire from God – the very punishment meted out to Nadab and Abihu,
for a very similar reason.
Although Dathan and Abiram banded together with Korah, they had an entirely different agenda.
They (at least according to the Midrash) were longtime opponents of
Moses’s authority as well as of his religio-political agenda. They never
wanted to leave Egypt, nor did they now wish to leave the desert for
the Land of Israel. They were the two squabbling Israelites whom Moses
encountered at the very beginning of his career. They refused to accept
his chastisement, responding: “Who appointed you as minister and judge
over us? Do you wish to slay us as you slew the Egyptian?” (Exodus
2:14). They resented Moses’s having taken command, and were perfectly
content to remain in Egypt and “cooperate” with Pharaoh’s policies.
Having been forced to swallow Moses’s leadership when he returned from
Midian, they now try to utilize the report of the 10 scouts to depose
Moses for good.
Moses recognizes that Dathan and Abiram’s agenda is different from that
of Korah; they are rebelling against him and his rule, not against
Aaron. He therefore asks to meet them separately (Num. 16:12).
They refuse to come, saying: “Was it not enough that you took us out of
the land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt, for them, is the land
flowing with milk and honey] to die in the desert, that you also wish to
rule over us...” (Num. 16:13). And when the punishment of the opening
of the earth to devour the sinners is being executed, the Torah
emphasizes that Moses and the elders come to Dathan and Abiram (Num.
16:25); they may have lived near Korah, but this is their only
connection to him. And it is they and their families who are swallowed
up by the earth – not Korah (Num. 16:26-35). They receive their just
punishment, disappearing into the earth, because it was the fruitfulness
of the land of Egypt and the materialism of their earthly existence
which led to their rebellion against a prophet of God.The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.