Korah and the consequences of fake news

The mutiny in the desert illustrates a higher form of challenging authority in search of truth.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
In the next chapter we learn the full toll.
“The number of dead in the plague was fourteen thousand seven hundred, besides those who died because of the matter of Korah.” This plague took the lives of those who, unlike the men who were swallowed when the earth opened, did not actively collude with Korah but joined his camp.
Following the event of the sinkhole, they publicly charged Moses with mass murder, claiming that he “killed the people of the Lord.” For this unfounded libel they too were punished.
So emblematic of mutiny is this desert drama that the name “Korah” in Jewish tradition has forever been synonymous with any act of rebellion.
But why was Korah so different from others who challenged Moses and his leadership? Why does this episode stand out in the Torah as the archetype of insurrection? As we know, Korah’s first cousin Moses, son of Amram, was chosen as the leader of Israel by God. According to Korah’s logic, as his father Yitzhar, son of Kehat and Amram’s brother, was next in succession in the tribe of Levi, the role of high priest should have been given to him, not to his other cousin and Moses’ brother Aaron. Was his grievance legitimate? Possibly. Might he not have requested from Moses an opportunity to discuss the matter? Later, the five daughters of Tzelofhad confronted Moses over their rights to their father’s inheritance, and succeeded. Plainly, Moses was receptive to claims for justice from anyone.
Rather than seek dialogue, Korah chose to undermine his cousin’s authority through instigating others. He led a campaign of what of late has come to be known as “fake news.” He cleverly concocted a false narrative of arrogated power and injustice that he strategically circulated among Israel’s Who’s Who. He promoted his message among no less than two hundred and fifty “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown.”
What were Korah’s specific grievances? “You [Moses and Aaron] take too much upon yourselves, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why do you place yourselves above the congregation?” This shows Korah sought to co-opt the tribes by preaching spiritual egalitarianism and massaging their egos, as well as portraying Moses as power-hungry, thus masking his ambition to be high priest.
Korah not only brought false charges against Moses and Aaron, he led a sophisticated public relations campaign. He first worked behind the scenes promoting his story and came forward only when he felt confident that the people were on his side.
Moses was soon aware of what Korah had done. After failing to convince two high-profile malcontents, Datan and Aviram of Korach’s folly, he realized that the people were beyond reason. Korah’s use of fake news was successful: thousands (the text says “the congregation”) had fallen for his guile. Moses had no choice but to invoke the supernatural to clearly demonstrate that he was, in fact, chosen by God for his role, as was his brother Aaron for his.
Jewish tradition is not opposed to challenging authority. Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra: Moses tried to persuade God not to confer on him the mission of leadership. The modern scholar Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes, “One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its students.”
Challenging authority, even God, all the while for “the sake of heaven” and not for selfish reasons, and not based on trumped up accusations as in the case of Korah, is not only permitted, but even encouraged.
Among the lessons gleaned from the story of Korah is that, somehow, sooner or later, the truth will out.
Ardie Geldman is an Efrat-based public speaker and writer. He is the founder and director of iTalkIsrael, www.iTalkIsrael.com