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It Ain’t Necessarily So: Reconsidering Korach

  • It Ain’t Necessarily So: Reconsidering Korach

    Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram . . . to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community. . . .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 Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?" When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, "Come morning, the Eternal will make known who is [God's] and who is holy, and will grant him direct access. . . .Then the man whom the Eternal chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!" (Numbers 16:1-7; bold and italics added by Rabbi Perlmeter)

D'var Torah

I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have made of the fact that his words to James Madison, in a letter dated January 30, 1787, would become mantra-like for many of us raised in the 1960s and '70s: "I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." I'm convinced that it's the legacy of Vietnam and Watergate that prevents me from joining the bulk of Rabbinic tradition in its absolute excoriation of Korah and his companions. Yet how can one possibly justify any sympathy for this demagogue on the basis of the text? Clearly, Korah's rebellion is deemed sinful by God, leading to his demise in the bowels of the earth. The Torah makes it clear to us that God supports the authority of Moses and Aaron and rejects the efforts of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and crew to undermine them.

While Korah and the 250 with him perish, if he is completely in the wrong, why do we hear in Numbers 26:11 that the sons of Korah survive? How is it that his descendants become prominent Levitical singers, their poems included in the Book of Psalms? After all, Torah text is clear in its threat that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children, even unto the fourth generation (Exodus 34:7). But as the Rabbis point out, the first part of the same verse speaks of God's "kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. . . ."

Given this paradox, the Sages affirm the great power of t'shuvah, and they conclude, in Midrash Tanchuma, that the sons of Korah must have repented of their fathers' sins, refusing to follow him in his revolt and earning a place in the sacred literary tradition of our people. In fact, if we study Psalm 49, a psalm of the Korahites that is traditionally read before Rosh HaShanah and in a house of mourning, we find it teaches the futility of self-importance. Ultimately, the fate of the Korahites is no different from our own:

For one sees that the wise die, that the foolish and ignorant both perish, leaving their wealth to others. Their grave is their eternal home, the dwelling-place for all generations of those once famous on earth. Man does not abide in honor; he is like the beasts that perish. Such is the fate of those who are self-confident, the end of those pleased with their own talk. (Psalm 49:11-14)

In other words, one possible explanation for the survival and honor accorded the descendants of Korah is that they become role models of t'shuvah, "repentance"-children who really get the error of their father's ways.

That would seem sufficient explanation, if only they were not remembered in Korah's name. Like it or not, his name becomes associated with their happier legacy. So maybe, just maybe, there is an additional lesson here: Torah does not devalue rebellion itself, but rather rebellion wrongly fought or fought for the wrong reasons. Perhaps Korah is a Promethean figure who has sinned indeed, but for the scope of whose striving the text nonetheless maintains a grudging respect.

After all, Korah is no slouch. He is Moses's first cousin. He has charisma. In fact, he is presented not only as kin to Moses, but also as being akin to Moses. The very language of the text causes us to see Korah as a reflection of his cousin, as they each use the phrase "You have gone too far" (Numbers 16:3, 16:7). And later, when Korah's companions speak the same words as Moses, "Is it not enough for you . . . ?" (Numbers 16:9, 16:13), the text shows that Korah and his partners possess a potential for greatness in leadership. Perhaps, going further, Korah is arguing a point with some justice. Korah takes a rebellious stance when he states that all the people are holy. But in Leviticus 19:2, God, through Moses, expresses that very idea: "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy." God urges us all to strive to attain holiness. Is it possible that Korah represents the first spark of the evolution of Jewish authority away from an aristocracy toward something like democracy? What nobler bequest could he leave-if only it weren't for that small streak of demagoguery?

Korah is, of course, an antihero. Yet in a tradition that speaks of the presence of both yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, "the good inclination and the bad inclination" in every soul, Korah challenges us to keep our own spark of rebellion alive while also ensuring that we choose the right fight for the right reasons. While some people today attempt to draw equivalencies between challenging authority and treason, we might do well to nurture that spark and see what fires it can light.

By the way...

  • Any controversy that is for the sake of Heaven shall in the end be resolved. A controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven shall not be resolved. Which controversy was for the sake of Heaven? [The controversy] between Hillel and Shammai. Which controversy was not for the sake of Heaven? [The controversy] of Korach and his band. (Pirkei Avot 5:17, as translated by Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, in Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics [New York: URJ Press, 1993], p. 85)
  • Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentation
    resounded through the starless air,
    so that I too began to weep.
    Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents,
    words of suffering, cries of rage, voices
    loud and faint, the sound of slapping hands-
    all these made a tumult, always whirling
    in that black and timeless air,
    as sand is swirled in a whirlwind.
    And I, my head encircled by error, said
    "Master, what is this I hear, and what
    are these so overcome by pain?"
    And he to me: "This miserable state is borne
    by the wretched souls of those who lived
    without disgrace yet without praise.
    They intermingle with that wicked band
    of angels, not rebellious and not faithful
    to God, who held themselves apart.
    'Loath to impair its beauty, Heaven casts them out,
    and depth of Hell does not receive them
    lest on their account the evil angels gloat.'"
    (Dante Alighieri, Inferno III: 22-42, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander [New York: Random House, 2002], pp. 43, 45)
  • The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation. (Jonathan Larsen, Rent, act 1)

Guide

  1. What passions drive you? Are they creative? What new, better realities might be realized through pursuing them?
  2. Do you agree with Dante's point that living without passion is even less respectable than following the wrong passion?
  3. How are we to know if the motivation of our rebellions and passions is worthy? What is the litmus test through which we can know if a struggle is really about justice or about ego?
  4. Is there a right way to rebel and a wrong way? What are they?
7/01/2006
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914