Parshat Korah: Rebels and leaders

"Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the fire-pans out of the burning ... for they are to become holy."

Burning farmland 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Burning farmland 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
In this week’s Torah portion, the situation in the desert goes from bad to worse, from the refusal of the Israelites to conquer Israel (arising from the sin of the scouts) to an actual mutiny against Moses. Why would so many Israelites ignore the many miracles of the Exodus and display such ingratitude to their leader? After all, Moses took an enslaved people and – at enormous personal sacrifice – forged them into a God-enthused, sensitive, responsible and independent nation.
To deepen our inquiry, it would appear that there were two rebellions, and two different causes at that.
The key to understanding what really caused the desert mutinies rests in an insight expressed by the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, who picks up on the fact that two different punishments were meted out to the rebels: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed up” one group (Numbers 16:32), and “Fire came forth from the Lord and devoured the 250 bearers of incense,” in the other group (Num. 16:35).
There is even a difference of opinion as to which group Korah belonged to. “There are those who say that Korah was among those swallowed up by the earth... and there those who say he was burnt to death... It is my opinion that only Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth, and Korah was burnt together with the incense bearers...” (Ibn Ezra to Numbers 16:35).
Let us revisit the biblical text and attempt to reconstruct what actually occurred.
Korah may have couched his words in the palatable tones of a democrat, but he was more of a demagogue.
“It’s enough for you,” he rants, “because the entire congregation is all holy and God is in their midst; why do you raise yourselves up above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
His major rebellion is against Aaron; he wants to be High Priest! Moses sees through his words, and charges the rebel with “seeking also the priesthood” and casting aspersions on Aaron (Num. 16:5-11).
Therefore, he challenges Korah to offer up incense as a sacrifice to God – which is ordinarily a priestly responsibility.
This will also explain why the famed Rebbe of Kotzk refers to Korah as the “holy grandfather.” After all, Korah was only seeking a closer relationship to God, a more central role in the divine service. He, like Nadab and Abihu (the sons of Aaron) before him, wished only to bring an offering to the Lord – even if he hadn’t been commanded to do so. He aspired to sanctity, but refused to accept the fact that there are divine limits upon the sacred, that one must be deemed worthy to come close to the divine. And so Korah and his band of followers are consumed by a fire from God – the very punishment meted out to Nadab and Abihu, for a very similar reason.
Although Dathan and Abiram banded together with Korah, they had an entirely different agenda.
They (at least according to the Midrash) were longtime opponents of Moses’s authority as well as of his religio-political agenda. They never wanted to leave Egypt, nor did they now wish to leave the desert for the Land of Israel. They were the two squabbling Israelites whom Moses encountered at the very beginning of his career. They refused to accept his chastisement, responding: “Who appointed you as minister and judge over us? Do you wish to slay us as you slew the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14). They resented Moses’s having taken command, and were perfectly content to remain in Egypt and “cooperate” with Pharaoh’s policies. Having been forced to swallow Moses’s leadership when he returned from Midian, they now try to utilize the report of the 10 scouts to depose Moses for good.
Moses recognizes that Dathan and Abiram’s agenda is different from that of Korah; they are rebelling against him and his rule, not against Aaron. He therefore asks to meet them separately (Num. 16:12).
They refuse to come, saying: “Was it not enough that you took us out of the land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt, for them, is the land flowing with milk and honey] to die in the desert, that you also wish to rule over us...” (Num. 16:13). And when the punishment of the opening of the earth to devour the sinners is being executed, the Torah emphasizes that Moses and the elders come to Dathan and Abiram (Num. 16:25); they may have lived near Korah, but this is their only connection to him. And it is they and their families who are swallowed up by the earth – not Korah (Num. 16:26-35). They receive their just punishment, disappearing into the earth, because it was the fruitfulness of the land of Egypt and the materialism of their earthly existence which led to their rebellion against a prophet of God.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.