The people and the book: Korah and Material Wealth

The weekly Torah portion Korah (Numbers 16:1-18:32) is read on Shabbat, June 25.

Korah and Material Wealth (photo credit: Courtesy)
Korah and Material Wealth
(photo credit: Courtesy)
THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Korah, conveys a key Jewish teaching on material wealth. Korah, a prominent member of the Israelite tribe of Levi, challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron in the desert.
The Torah narrates the response God brought about to Korah and his followers: “The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property. They, and all they possessed, descended alive into the grave; the earth covered them up, and they were lost to the assembly” (Numbers 16:32-33).
What did Korah and his followers do to deserve this fate? To answer this, let us first examine why the Torah twice mentions that the earth swallowed up all the property of Korah’s assembly. The Talmud, a compilation of the Jewish oral tradition written down about 1,500 years ago, says that Korah was extremely wealthy – upon leaving Egypt he discovered and took out treasures that Joseph had hidden as viceroy of Egypt (Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a).
Rabbi Ephraim Luntchitz (author of “Kli Yakar,” Prague, 1550-1619) writes that the wealth of Korah’s fellow rebels took them over and generated greed-based powerseeking.
He notes a tendency of money to co-opt its owner and subjugate him or her to its seeming power. He cautions that money “must be under the control of a person to do with their money what they want,” and not vice versa. It seems that for Korah and his followers, their wealth inflated their sense of entitlement, leading them to think that they, not Moses and Aaron, should lead the Jewish people.
The Jewish tradition is not an ascetic one.
The holy, conscious use of the physical world is a key means to serving the infinite.
For one who is wealthy, proper use of that wealth can be a force for positive change in the world. Thus the Talmud teaches that how one uses money is one of three key tests in life. Yet according to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in modern times it is very difficult to have wealth and not be corrupted by it.
Money and wealth, meant to be in service of higher aspirations and lofty deeds (such as charity), can instead become the aspiration itself. The means then become the end, and wealth changes from being an instrument for good to being a spiritual danger.
Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a contemporary teacher in Jerusalem, teaches that wealth misled Korah into thinking that power, selfworth and importance come from external sources. Having so much wealth led him to mistake the real source of worth – inner happiness – for an exterior source of it, leading him to develop a ‘taking,’ egotistical mentality.
The true source of wealth lies within the wellspring of joy and happiness which is in each person’s soul. The rabbis teach, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with their lot” (“Pirkei Avot”). The Hassidic masters emphasize the word “happy” in this teaching – that one who is happy is rich, regardless of how much they own. Connecting to the inner wealth of one’s soul also helps a person to maintain control over physical wealth, by reminding him or her about where true wealth resides.
Asecond way for a person to not be controlled by his wealth is to give it to people or causes that need it more than oneself. Rabbi Kohn also teaches that in contrast to Korah, Moses is a “giver.” Both Moses and Samuel insisted that in all their years of service to the Jewish people, they never took anything for themselves. This is why, right after the story of Korah, God commands the giving of one tenth of one’s income to the Levites. This is the response and repair for what he did. This was meant to sanctify the Israelites’ wealth and promote a mentality of giving to others.
The current custom to give 10 percent of one’s income to charity can achieve this today.
It would be enough if misuse of wealth were only a spiritual liability. But it has become clear in recent years how it is also a physical danger to ourselves and our children.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, comprised of executives from major international corporations, notes that global consumption levels and patterns are primarily driven by three factors: First, rapid global population growth, with the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050. Second, the rise in global affluence and associated consumption.
Third, “a culture of ‘consumerism’ among higher income groups, who account for the greatest per capita share of global consumption.” Having wealth can promote over-consumption – consuming far beyond one’s material needs.
The report continues that “global consumption is putting unsustainable and increasing stress on the earth’s ecosystems.
Sixty percent of the earth’s ecosystem services have been degraded in the past 50 years. Natural resource consumption is expected to rise to 170 percent of the earth’s bio-capacity by 2040.”
In conclusion, the challenge that wealthdriven over-consumption poses is of both a spiritual and physical nature. The spiritual challenge is to overcome wealth’s pull towards self-gratification and a sense of entitlement, or be overcome by it. The physical challenge manifests in environmental problems like species loss and pollution.
May the lessons learned from Korah inspire us to meet these challenges by using the physical world in holy ways.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril is founder and director of Jewish Eco Seminars (, which engages and educates the Jewish community on Israel, the environment and Jewish values.