Korach: Korach v. Moses

It’s Personal

Why did the Reubenites join Korach’s rebellion against Moses?

Table for Five: Korach

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

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 two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.

– Num. 16:1-2

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, NY, NY

It is the nature of human beings to be dissatisfied with leaders. The Torah witnesses for us this essential truth. Korah’s rebellion reflects this aspect of the Yetzer haRa that we all contend with. While we usually translate that concept as “the inclination for evil” the better translation in the context of the Korah story is the Yetzer HaRa as the tendency toward egoism and unhealthy self-aggrandizement.

Korah made an ad hominem attack on Moses; it was personal. Could he have asked questions of the leadership to advance his causes? We saw such methods work in Torah for a group of daughters with no inheritance and a group who missed the opportunity to offer their korban Pesah. Are we too quick to launch personal attacks on the human beings who are elected, appointed and who volunteer for leadership roles? Often times the challenges we make have legitimate, principled ideas and hopes behind them, but sometimes it gets hateful and vicious. Torah teaches that personal animosity and disdain remove a person from the world; it will swallow you up. Our inclinations to raise our own ideas as the only right ones get to unhealthy levels. Underlying the quickness to judge leaders as unholy or inadequate may be the egomania that makes us more like Korah. We need to be careful about advancing our causes and work with leaders respectfully – not through rabble-rousing and revolution.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew

This verse invites us to wonder why members of the tribe of Reuben would join a rebellion against Moses. What motivated them to set aside the admiration and reverence they must have had for Moses to join an internecine conflict between two Levite families over religious leadership? What did the Reubenites have to gain from allying themselves against the man who had led them from Egypt, initiated them into Divine revelation, and remained responsive to their needs in the wilderness? They were betraying themselves.

Our sages answer that the Reubenites fell under the influence of Korach because they both camped alongside each other to the south of the Tabernacle. Although these two groups had no real complaint in common, they found misguided solidarity as neighbors.

This fact is a telling indication of the real power we give to the people we surround ourselves with. The people we adopt as our neighbors, and certainly those whom we choose as friends, possess an inordinate measure of influence over us.

The Mishna in Avot relates that among the things one should most avoid are bad friends and neighbors. By that reasoning, we should seek out good friends and good neighbors, but also strive to be those things to others. Our well-being is not individual; it is collective. We cannot retain our own well-being unless we ensure the well-being of others. We cannot demand the goodwill of others unless we ourselves embody goodwill. We must proactively create a fellowship of good friends and neighbors.

Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy

Korah and his sons begin a rebellion against Moshe. Korah may be motivated by jealousy and may be acting from a place of feeling unseen or passed over. And Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer teaches from the word vayikah – which is in the singular – we learn that Korah and his followers were acting alone and in their own interests. Thinking about Moshe, we can imagine how angry he feels during this rebellion, and we may empathize with his desire to end this conflict with a show of force. But the show of force does not actually end the conflict; the people are upset that Moshe caused Korah and his followers’ deaths. The rebellion is only put behind them completely once Aaron performs his miracle.

Psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy teaches “You can be right. Or you can be effective.” In conflict we often want to match the other’s energy; it feels so good to outwit someone and to make them feel little. But our tradition asks us to lean into Mahloket, speaking across differences. Too often we write off those who disagree with us, who rebel against us (either literally or metaphorically). But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, “Force never ends conflict – not even in the case of Moses, not even when the force is miraculous.” Instead, the story of Korah is ultimately urging us to listen in order to understand, to open ourselves to a genuine desire to hear others, and to find the commonalities in our differences.

Rabbi Brett Kopin, Base LA

This story is commonly called Korah’s Rebellion, but as this verse makes clear, two rebellions erupt. While Korah attempts to seize religious power, Dathan and Abiram attempt to seize political power. Their bands ultimately endure different fates: Korah’s men are consumed by fire; Dathan, Abiram, and their families are swallowed by the earth.

Korah challenges his cousin Aaron’s position as High Priest, the community’s religious authority. This might be the meaning of what the rabbis call an “argument for the sake of Korah”– an argument that appears spiritually motivated but is actually an effort to wield more power.

His allies, Dathan and Abiram, challenge Moses’s political power, implicitly attempting to usurp his leadership. They are all swallowed by the earth, a symbol of the foundational disruption they attempted to unleash.

But what about Korah’s followers, the “men of repute?” Why are they consumed by fire? Perhaps instead of desiring power and control (after all, there can only be one High Priest), their desire was simply to come closer to God as priests–positions reserved for Levites alone; not for other Israelites. The fires of their fate symbolize the ill-conceived vision of their religious fervor. Both rebellions threatened the social and spiritual fabric of the nation. This story is a reminder that within our communities, we must be mindful of how we nurture, serve, and elevate each other, building up foundations in both mundane and spiritual ways, motivated not for the sake of Korah, but always for the sake of Heaven.

Nicholas Losorelli, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Class of 2025/5785

Korach, a reputable Levite, along with “anshei-shem” (respected men) and 250 followers, staged an open rebellion against Moses, Aaron, and, by extension, God. These rebels were not insignificant figures, but trusted community members. Despite all they had collectively experienced since Egypt, they sought to assert their right to lead the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, over Moses and Aaron. Given that the leaders of this movement were respected leaders, then obviously to many they must have been convincing.

Ibn Ezra notes that Korach and his followers suspected Moses of nepotism, because it appeared that he was just elevating his relatives to power. This suspicion was understandable given their recent oppression under Pharaoh. They likely saw parallels between Moses and Pharaoh, viewing Moses as yet another tyrant, under whom they would no doubt suffer a similar fate in a now unfamiliar land. This reflects a healthy skepticism of earthly leaders born from their past traumas, and who among us hasn’t felt a similar skepticism bubble up within us?

However, this productive fear turned unproductive. Despite their logical reasoning, the rebellion ultimately failed. Their actions illustrate how even understandable and seemingly logical dissent can be poorly timed, wrong, or even unjust. Understanding their perspective evokes sympathy, yes, but it also underscores that not all reasonable concerns lead to just actions. Korach’s rebellion, especially now, serves as a cautionary tale about the fine line between productive and destructive fear, emphasizing that legitimacy of suspicion does not equate to righteousness in action.

With thanks to Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, Dr. Erica Rothblum, Rabbi Brett Kopin and Nicholas Losorelli.

Image: “Korach, Datan and Aviram swallowed up by the earth” by Gilliam van der Gouwen, 1728

Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter

Share to

You Might Also Like

Sign Me Up

Sign me up!

Our newsletter goes out about twice a month, with links to our most popular posts and episodes.