Parashat Korah: His children did not die

By specifying that Korah's sons didn't die, the Torah warns us that demagogues live in every generation, including our own.

 ‘AS ALWAYS, the demagogue mines a kernel of truth.’ (Illustrative) (photo credit: Mockup Graphics/Unsplash)
‘AS ALWAYS, the demagogue mines a kernel of truth.’ (Illustrative)
(photo credit: Mockup Graphics/Unsplash)

The opening of this week’s parasha, Korah, is stunning:

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth  – descendants of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’” (Num. 16:1-3).

In the Torah, no word or phrase is considered superfluous. Why are we given so much genealogical information about Korah and Dathan?

In this case, within the question lies the answer. We learn that Korah is a first cousin of Moses and Aaron; Kohath is their grandfather. We are also told that Dathan is from the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn of the patriarch Jacob and matriarch Leah. Reuben and his descendants, through primogeniture, should have been the leaders of the Children of Israel, but they were replaced by the tribe of Levi. (Later they will be pushed aside by the tribe of Judah when it comes to the monarchy; this is foreshadowed with Judah’s rise at the end of the Joseph cycle in the Book of Genesis.)

That is to say, both Korah and Dathan had very personal motives behind their objection to the power of Moses and Aaron. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler explains:

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

“As always, the demagogue mines a kernel of truth, which is what gives his argument momentum. Moses does possess great authority; Aaron does receive the best cuts of meat. They are privileged. But Korah also ignores the greater truth: Moses has never governed for his own enrichment. He carries the burden of leadership without fanfare, just as his brother, Aaron, carries the sins of the entire people on his shoulders when he seeks God’s forgiveness. Aaron and Moses serve a higher purpose and resist the aggrandizing temptations of power. But Korah, despite his compelling rhetoric and populist appeals, serves no one but himself.”

In the case of Korah and Dathan, as with many demagogues, they are eventually swallowed up by what they sow:

“The ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community” (Num. 16: 31-33).

Boston College political scientist Solomon Stevens writes:

“Demagogues are dangerous for the very reason that they draw their strength from the fears and passions of the very people they aspire to lead. Demagogues understand the psychic needs of the people and play on them for their own benefit, but the people... unwisely support demagogues, not seeing that they don’t really care about them at all.” 

Korah and Dathan played off the fears of the Israelites. It is not surprising that they attempted their coup shortly after the report of the spies. We read in last week’s parasha: “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 14:1-2). That is to say, the conditions were ripe for Korah and Dathan to make their move.

Harvard University historian Cynthia Koch points out, “Much more alluring in times of uncertainty and despair are the charms of the demagogue. He (and most of the time, but not always, a demagogue is a he) promises easy solutions to complicated problems using dubious methods. He stirs up people’s passions and fears with exaggerated rhetoric and scapegoating. Slogans, name-calling, and misrepresentation are his stock in trade.” 

(That hyperbolic oratory was exactly what Korah and Dathan used as they cloaked their real motivation and goal by claiming that if all of Israel was holy, how could Moses and Aaron “raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation” as leaders? (Num. 16:3).

“As Shakespeare’s Cassius noted, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves....’”

Prof. Loren J. Samons II

Demagogues are always with us: Another lesson from the Torah

Adding another layer, Yeshayahu Leibowitz perceptively understands the verse “The sons of Korah, however, did not die” when the ground swallowed them (Num. 26:11; 16:31) as a cautionary line, warning us that demagogues live in every generation, including our own.

University of Pennsylvania professor of law and human rights Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, while speaking about present-day demagogues and populists, offers these insights which are also applicable to our biblical text:

“Populists use half-truths and oversimplification – the two scalpels of the arch propagandist.... Paint half a picture in the mind of an anxious individual.... Prop this picture up by some half-truth here and there and allow the natural prejudice of people to fill in the rest.... Add drama.... The formula is therefore simple: make people, already nervous, feel terrible. Inflame and quench, repeat many times over, until anxiety has been hardened into hatred.”

Offering further observation, Polish historian Adam Aksnowicz, based on Ivan T. Berend’s A Century of Populist Demagogues: Eighteen European Portraits, 1918–2018, explains, “Even though many contemporary demagogues have come from places of personal privilege or have amassed great amounts of wealth, they present themselves as having a finger on the pulse of the common man and empathize with their struggles. This is unlike the established parties and politicians, they claim, who are alienated from ‘the people’”

THE INCIDENT of Korah elicits two comments in the Mishna:

“Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: the mouth of the earth (that swallowed Korah and his followers), the mouth of the well, the mouth of the donkey, the rainbow, the manna, the staff [of Moses], the shamir, the letters, the writing, and the tablets. And some say: also the demons, the grave of Moses, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say: and also tongs, made with tongs” (Pirke Avot 5:6).

“Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure, but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation” (ibid. 5:17).

Is there a way to understand these two mishnayot as complementing each other? The first mishna is quite fascinating, challenging the supernatural aspect of events, saying they were not supernatural but, rather, natural. That is to say, they were naturally programmed during the first week of creation, similar to how our baby teeth eventually fall out and are replaced by our adult teeth. It appears to be supernatural, but that phenomenon is programmed at conception. That first mishna speaks about something fronting as one thing, in this case supernatural, but that is actually something else, natural. In the same way, Korah and all demagogues front as speaking for the people, but in reality are for their own personal gain and power. The second mishna reminds us that Korah and other demagogues “will not endure.”

Combining the two mishnayot, we learn a profound truth: At the end of the day, and sometimes it may be a very long day, demagogues are devoured by what they have cast.

Writing about demagogues, Boston University Prof. Loren J. Samons II reminds us, “As Shakespeare’s Cassius noted, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves....” 

For the sun to rise on that new day, we need to strengthen and frame our disputes “for the sake of heaven.” ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.