Parashat Korah: Rebels then and now

One of the saddest things for me is the failure of the Israelites to immediately rise up against the rebels who dared defy Moses.

"And Korah, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi [took along with him] Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav... and they rose up in confrontation before Moses..." (Numbers 16:1,2) In studying the biblical portion of Korah cited above, one of the saddest things for me is the failure of the Israelites to immediately rise up against the rebels who dared defy Moses, the selfless man of God who gave up a luxurious life as prince of Egypt to liberate a slave people. And then the sadness gradually abates when I realize that all we need to do is read between the lines. In doing so we discern two distinct ideological positions and political platforms, both of which are antithetical to everything Moses stood for. Together they represent the positions of the Hebrews in their opposition to Moses's leadership. But then the sadness takes on a different kind of gloom when I realize that adumbrations of the Korah wars are still to be heard today, festering at the heart of Israeli society. Before we analyze the nature of Korah's rebellion, two factors should be kept in mind. First, the commandment to wear ritual fringes on four-cornered garments (tzitzit), which closes last week's portion Shlah, serves as an excellent introduction as well as an eventual rebuttal to the individual movements that Korah, Datan and Aviram represent. Secondly, it should also be understood that Moses's announcement that the entire generation, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, was condemned to die in the desert (Numbers 14:26-39) made the Hebrews ripe for rebellion. Never mind that it was their own fault for refusing to conquer the land - naturally it's easier to blame Moses for having presented a mission which they believed from its inception was doomed to fail. Moses attempts to deal first with Korah, and then with Datan and Aviram separately. In my opinion, this is not only to "divide and conquer" but is also the Torah's way of emphasizing how they represent different approaches, different "political parties" as it were. Korah, called by the Kotzker Rebbe "the holy grandfather," uses the democratic argument of "equality in holiness" against the sons of Amram: "It has been enough leadership for you [Moses and Aaron]; all the people in the witness community are holy with the Lord in their midst. Why must you set yourselves up to be on a higher plane than the congregation of the Lord?" (Numbers 16:3). And if Korah sees no differences in holiness between people, tribes and families, thereby rejecting any unique status for Aaron and his sons as kohanim, it stands to reason that he would also reject any special status for the Land of Israel. After all, the revelation took place outside the geographic boundaries of the land. If God is within all of us who heard the revelation, then the Lord is certainly within the place where the revelation took place. Korah's position rejects the Aaronic priesthood as well as the idea that the entire generation must be punished for their refusal to conquer the land. From Korah's point of view these are false inventions instituted by Moses himself (see Moses's defense of himself 16:28). Even more, Korah justifies the Israelites' desire to remain in the desert precisely because of the desert's holiness - an ideal and idyllic setting . For Korah and his sympathizers, the desert is not a place of punishment but the perfect and perennial kollel institute of higher learning. God is their rosh yeshiva, initially communicating the lesson to the head yeshiva student, Moses. God also provides the daily portions of manna, as well as protecting them with His "clouds of glory" against the elements as they are led from station to station. Why leave this ethereal, spiritual haven for the wars, political arguments, economic crises, social challenges and muddied manipulations necessary in setting up a nation state? For reasons of frumkeit (religiosity) alone, Korah questions if the Israelites aren't better off remaining in the desert, leaving all decisions to God? Moses is willing to call Korah's bluff. He instructs him to take his entire party of 250 men the next day and provide each with a fire-pan and incense as a special "priestly" offering before God. "It has been enough [leadership] for you, sons of Levi" (Numbers 16:4-6). The divine decision was not long in coming: "A fire came down from God and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense" including Korah himself (16:25, Ibn Ezra ad loc). Even if Korah's quest for "desert kollel" sanctity had been sincere, this was not God's will for Israel. God wants us to establish a nation-state, to take responsibility for perfecting an imperfect world, with all the challenges this entails. This is the message of the ritual fringes: The white strings represent the white wool of the sheep, the animal aspects of our lives. These must be sanctified by the sapphire color of t'helet, sky blue, the symbol of the divine seen by the elders at Sinai (Exodus 24:10). When we gaze upon the ritual fringes, we must remember our true mission: to enter history, to risk impurity by taking up the challenges of the real world and to assume our responsibility to become a "sacred nation and kingdom of priest-teachers" to the world (Exodus 19:6 S'forno ad loc). Datan and Aviram had a different political agenda against Moses, refusing to attend a meeting with the greatest prophet and the most successful liberator in history, claiming: "Isn't it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, only to kill us off in the desert? With what right do you rule, yes rule, over us?" (Numbers 16:13) The midrash identifies them with the old enemies of Moses - the "fighting Israelites" who questioned his right to kill an Egyptian taskmaster at the beginning of Exodus. They never wanted to leave Egypt in the first place and, unlike Korah, the last thing they want is to remain in the desert. They hanker after the fleshpots of Egypt. They would have loved to make their home deep in the "Big Apple." They are certain that if they would only return to Egypt they would be accepted as Egyptians and benefit from the material advantages of the most powerful country in the world. They too are punished by God, who causes the material earth for which they yearned so mightily to swallow them alive (Numbers 16:35 Ibn Ezra ad loc). Because of their passion for remembered pleasures, they never learned to look upon the ritual fringes properly. They saw neither the royal blue of their majestic ancestry - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, passionate followers of God - nor the sapphire blue of the divine presence in the world, summoning us to His service. Israel - the modern state - has yet to learn the lessons of Moses. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.