What does the dramatic Korach episode in the wilderness reveal about our own motivations today?
Table for Five: Korach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” Moses heard and fell on his face.
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi, mashpia, writer, businessman
Korach, Moses’ influential cousin, mounted an insurrection against Moses’ leadership. He teamed up with rabble rousers and leaders with grievances, 250 men strong, and besieged Moses and Aaron.
The Jewish people were susceptible to Korach’s manipulation. They had been informed that they would remain in the desert for 40 years and only their children would come to Israel. The priesthood, previously assigned to the firstborn of each family, was now assigned to Levites only. An undercurrent of alienation and disenfranchisement was setting in.
As for Korach, he felt he deserved a more prominent role in the priesthood. The 250+ men were judges of the individual tribes, who nursed complaints. Dasan and Avirom were known troublemakers. Korach, shrewd and powerful, driven by his own perceived slight, harnessed the mobs’ intersectionality for mayhem.
Moses, God’s faithful servant, who had earned God’s assurance “and also in you they will believe forever,” was now being challenged. Moses fell on his face. The previous ten tests were against God; Moses stood strong. This one was directed against him. Being the humblest of all men, all Moses could do was to turn to God to defend his authority, and thereby God’s.
The integrity of Moses’s leadership was fundamental to the entirety of God’s authority. If Moses couldn’t be trusted, anarchy was next. The union between God and his people was threatened. The insurgency had to be dealt with — immediately and uncompromisingly. And so it was. Faith in God and in Moses was restored, and tranquility returned.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
Korach, as many others since, misunderstood what Thomas Jefferson would much later proclaim as the fundamental pillar of American democracy.
The Declaration of Independence inspires us to this day with the premise that “all men are created equal.” Korach took the words literally. All of us are the same. None of us can lay claim to special traits or talents. “The entire congregation are all holy – so why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
Democracy, in this horrifying miscalculation, is the enemy of meritocracy. No one dare to stand out, to excel, to surpass the achievements of others by dint of extraordinary effort or unique genetic blessing.
And yet the Talmud tells us “Jerusalem was destroyed because the small and the great were made equal.” (Shabbos 119b, B. Talmud). I acknowledge that I am not as smart as Albert Einstein, as wise as Maimonides, as gifted as Michelangelo, or as holy as many of our ancestors.
Yet all of us, no matter our advantages of heredity or environment, need to know that we are beloved by God who created us as unique and special in order for us to fulfill our roles in helping to make this a better world. Yes, we are all equal in our human dignity, created in the image of God with the same rights to similar legal standing for justice and opportunity – but as Sir Herbert Samuel so beautifully put it, “Equality of opportunity is an equal opportunity to prove unequal talents.”
Atara Segal, Shalhevet High School
Moshe and Aharon, brothers born only three years apart but raised radically differently, reacted to Korach’s challenge in unique ways. Moshe, falling on his face, expressed his dismay at Korach’s insurrection. Aharon, reprising his “stillness” in the wake of his sons’ deaths, does and says nothing.
Ramban interprets this silence as an expression of Aaron’s modesty, acknowledging the value of Korach’s claim that the entire congregation is sanctified with no need for additional leadership. Not knowing how – or if – to respond, he chooses not to. But what about Moshe? His faceplant conveys profound dismay. However, if it were only a reaction to the content of Korach’s claim, Aaron would have joined his brother on the ground – as he did a few parshiyot ago.
I believe Moshe was disturbed by more than Korach’s claims. He hurt for his brother. Before Moshe returned from Midian as the prophetic redeemer, Aaron’s leadership was natural and appreciated. It is only in the context of Moshe’s radical leadership that Aaron’s place is challenged. Moshe expressed not only his pain at the national crisis provoked by Korach, but his profound loss at Aaron’s bewilderment in the face of Korach’s rejection of Aaron’s sacrifice and skill as High Priest. What an expression of fraternal devotion! At the very moment of a crisis of confidence in the government, I see Moshe’s political concerns rivaled by his love and concern for his brother. Pundits routinely claim that family distractions diminish our leaders. For us, Moshe’s humanity marks him as our greatest ever.
Rabbi Dr Janet Madden, Fountainview at Gonda Westside
In the parlance of our day, Korach’s truth-twisting is classic gaslighting. He begins his attack with a true statement: the congregation has been named holy and the Divine Presence has come to dwell in the midst of the people. But then Korach moves to the reveal. His accusation shows his real motive: he wants the status of leadership and perhaps also the unique status—and the unique relationship—that Aaron and, especially Moses, have with the Living Presence.
Aaron’s response is not recorded, but Moses, who has consistently demonstrated his acute sense of hearing, accurately perceives Korach’s animus. Presumably, Moses knows his first cousin’s nature and also understands the nuances and dangers of Korach’s challenge. When Moses prostrates himself, he is, in fact, providing a most eloquent embodied response to Korach. Assuming this submissive posture does not simply express Moses’s humility, his physicality speaks volumes, a full-bodied articulation of reverence, despair, helplessness, petition, dread.
Rashi imagined that Moses fell on his face as a way of desperately seeking Divine forgiveness for this perpetually rebellious people. Saadia Gaon imagined that Moses fell on his face awaiting Divine instructions about what to do next. We might also imagine that Moses, seeking a moment’s solace in embracing the solidity of the earth in this space between words, is already grieving for what has been and what will be.
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell, MHL, MAEd ahavattorahla.org
Rabbinic interpreters suggest that Korach’s public attack on Moses and Aaron comes not only from jealousy of unfulfilled goals, but also from his claim that Moses showed favoritism to his brother Aaron for the priesthood, and that Korach and his highly deserving family were bypassed for this honor.
On one hand I can understand Korach’s jealousy, on the other hand how dare Korach publicly question and accuse Moses, the humblest man of God, and Aaron his brother, of raising themselves above all the people of Israel because all the people are a congregation of holy priests. Is Korach not aware that God is the one that has chosen Aaron, and not Moses?
In The Ethics of Our Fathers 5:17 we read, “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 for the sake of heaven? The controversy of Hillel and Shammai; and which is the controversy not for the sake of heaven? The controversy of Korach and his congregation.” Nehama Leibowitz writes that each of Korach’s gang was filled with jealousy and criticism against Moses and Aaron. What do we learn from this classic rebellion?
Jealousy is a destructive power! We learn that, “Jealousy, lust and ambition drive a man out of this world,” Ethics of our Fathers, 4:21. Please remember that looks can be very misleading, therefore, before we make any assumptions, we should check our facts. May it be so. Amen.
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