Parashat Korah: A disloyal opposition

The tragedy of Moses toward the end of his life is that of a leader whose very objective is almost totally rejected by his nation.

If it is correct to say that the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) is the saddest - and most tragic - of the five books of the Bible, then surely this week's portion of Korah is the saddest - and most tragic - in this fourth book. Korah, Datan and Aviram, together with 250 prominent cohorts, rebel against Moses - and not a person among the Israelites rises in defense of the prophet who liberated the nation from Egyptian slavery (Numbers 16: 2-4). It is not the mutiny which is so difficult to understand, simply because all great leaders have their challenges and detractors; but how can we understand that not one Israelite saw fit to defend the greatest liberator in world history? What actually brings tears to my eyes during the biblical reading is when Moses summons Datan and Aviram to a meeting - and their response is a terse "We shall not come up." I have been in the rabbinate for 45 years, and have certainly experienced opposition both in the Lincoln Square Synagogue as well as in Efrat (the two communities I have known); after all, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter would say, "A rav whom everyone always likes and agrees with is no rav, and a rav whom no one likes and agrees with is no 'mensch.'" But nevertheless, it has never happened that I've summoned one of my "rebels" to my home or office to discuss matters and that he/she has refused to come. How could Datan and Aviram treat Moses with such disdain? The Sefat Emet maintains that a careful reading of the text - "And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram" (16:12) - would suggest that the prophet did not summon them himself but rather had his secretary make the call, as it were. Nevertheless, they should have come, if only out of minimal respect for Moses's higher political, intellectual and spiritual station. How can we understand what was happening? I believe that if we put two and two together and read between the lines, the political sides become very clear and very sad. Virtually none of the Israelites had wanted to conquer Israel - except for Moses, Joshua and Caleb. The 210 years in Egypt had caused them to forget Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Joseph; the promise of Israel as the place from which "all the families of the earth would be blessed through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah" (Genesis 12:3) had become a long-forgotten dream. Moses was virtually isolated; his resolve to conquer Israel had been overwhelmingly rejected by the very scouts which he himself had picked for a reconnaissance mission. Virtually the entire nation lacked the faith, the will, the idealism and the self-confidence to wage a difficult war on behalf of the Land. And to add insult to injury, Moses had informed them that they all - with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb - would die in the desert. In the perception of the people, that fate would certainly overtake them if they remained under Moses's leadership. So they rejected Moses! The political factions were divided as follows: Datan and Aviram had always wished to remain in Egypt; they even refer to Egypt as the land flowing with milk and honey, and blame Moses for bringing them into the desert (16:13); indeed, it was these two who had already agitated to make a new leader and return to Egypt as soon as they heard the scouts' report (14:3,4). And because they wanted to assimilate into the materialistic fleshpots of Egypt, they are to be swallowed up by the materialistic earth (16:27-32, Ibn Ezra there). They represent the extreme secular and anti-Zionist opposition. Korah was a different rebel altogether; he was jealous of the priesthood, the kehunah, of Aaron and is so charged by Moses (16:10). He wished to remain in the sanctified, rarefied, bubble-like kollel (yeshiva) atmosphere of the desert forever, devoid of the responsibility of ever establishing a state with economic, social and military challenges; he loved the manna from heaven and the Divine cloud by day and fire by night which told the people when and where to go. He simply wished to be priest-kohen in an eternal kollel, and is therefore consumed in flames, just like the other overly righteous "sinners," Nadav and Avihu (16:35, according to Ibn Ezra). He thus represents the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) anti-Zionist position. The tragedy of Moses toward the end of his life is that of a leader whose very objective - bringing the nation of Israel into the Land of Israel - is almost totally rejected by his nation, and so he is also abandoned. In the final analysis, however, God is on Moses's side, and even if one is alone with God, one is always with the majority of the One. Hence, the next generation learns from the punishments, and stands firmly with Joshua in conquering the Promised Land. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.