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  • Korach

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

Our rabbis teach that the rebellion of Korach, related in this week's Torah portion-Parashat Korach-was the most dangerous moment during the Israelites' journey through the wilderness. I have often wondered why they said this. After all, the conflict ended when "the earth opened its mouth and swallowed ... up all Korach's people." (Numbers 16:32) If Moses was capable of performing such a miracle, how could Korach have hoped to challenge him? Was it only personal ambition that drove Korach?

Having worked in a community of Shoah survivors for many years, I have gained an insight that is different from those in our classical sources. To me, Moses is a typical "hidden child" survivor. When the deportations started, many children were separated from their parents and hidden with non-Jewish families. This meant that they had to assume a new identity, a new name, a new history. They were allowed to stay alive-but not as themselves; they had to be someone else, denying their parents and their roots. For many, this happened several times.

After the Shoah, these children had a terrible time readjusting. If their parents had returned, they often did not recognize their children. Badly traumatized, the parents could not care for their children well. Many children kept their new identities until adulthood. Many of them only found the courage to go and look for their own identities many years later. Each time, it was a truly painful process.

This is what happened to Moses. We do not know what his parents called him: Moses is the name Pharaoh's daughter gave him. (Exodus 2:10) He was brought up as an Egyptian prince and may have been only vaguely aware of his true identity. It was not until he was grown that he "went out to his kinsfolk." (Exodus 2:11) The confrontation was dramatic, and he had to flee for his life. Years later, following the vision at the burning bush, he was sent back to Egypt to redeem his people.

Apparently he had no problem communicating with Pharaoh: They spoke the same language. But he never learned to speak to his own people so that they could easily understand him. He stuttered, or rather he had problems finding the right words and relating properly to the people's experience. Aaron had to "translate" for him. This might have been the problem Moses had with the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness.

Korach was different. Korach was a man of the people. He shared their experiences, he spoke their language, and he knew how to move them. The rabbis tell us that he ridiculed Moses and the Torah. "Why," Korach asked, "is it necessary to have a mezuzah on the doorpost of a room that is full of Torah scrolls?" (Numbers Rabbah 18:3) We know little about Korach, but it may well be that, like many survivors of the Shoah, he rejected God or held God responsible for what the people had suffered in Egypt. The text first gives the impression that Korach wanted the religious leadership. But in Numbers 16:11, Moses analyzes Korach's motives, saying: "Truly, it is against the Eternal that you and your company have banded together."

The danger was twofold. First, Korach was able to speak for the people and gain the popular support Moses could not rally. Second, his motives were to move the people away from God and the Torah. Many other survivors who questioned God's justice would have supported him. The challenge, therefore, was not just about the leadership but about the whole existence and purpose of Israel.

This might explain why Moses, rather than one of the slaves, was chosen to lead the people. Do religious leaders perhaps need to keep a certain distance from the people they care for and lead? They have to be able to empathize and identify with them, but do they maybe also need to have had a different experience-a broader vision that would keep them from getting caught up too much in parochial concerns? Is that why so few rabbis and priests and imams serve the communities in which they grew up?

Korach was too traumatized to lead, and his passion consumed him; Moses, who kept struggling with his identity and his mission, knew how the Eternal was leading him on his way. He was able to convey a different conviction to the people-the conviction we still treasure and live by today.

Pushing the Limits of God's Patience
Davar Acher By: 
Alice Weinstein

Biblical scholars differ in their opinions about the time line of the events that are chronicled in the Book of Numbers. According to Jacob Milgrom ( JPS Torah Commentary, 1990, p. xi), it is clear that the first ten chapters occurred over nineteen days in the second month of the second year of the Exodus and that chapters 20 through 36 recount events that occurred during five months of the fortieth year. This leads us to assume that chapters 11 through 19 tell about events that happened during the intervening thirty-eight years.

We know from simple geography that the Israelites could have reached Eretz Yisrael quickly. But they were destined by God to wander in the desert following the negative reports that the spies brought back to Moses: "None of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers." (Numbers 14:22-23)

But two chapters later in Parashat Korach, Korach rebels against God, Moses, and Aaron. Let us try to understand what motivated him, Dathan, and Abiram. They and the Israelites, who had spent their entire lives in servitude, were products of that experience. We are told at the beginning of the Book of Exodus that the people "groaned under their bondage and cried out" (Exodus 2:23), and we assume that they wished to be released. Aaron Wildavsky, however, suggests that they were only asking for relief from their condition and did not really wish to leave. He notes that during their 400 years of enslavement, no one rose up from among their ranks to assume a leadership role; rather, they accepted domination by those outside their ranks. ( The Nursing Father: Moses As Political Leader, University of Alabama Press, 1984, pp. 129-131)

Now they are being led by one of their own (Moses), and another of their own (Aaron) has been appointed to the equally high position of Kohein Gadol (High Priest). Never having had the opportunity to hold leadership positions themselves, knowing that their generation was decreed by God to perish in the wilderness, and thus figuring they had nothing to lose, the three rebel leaders may have believed that they, too, should be considered for leadership roles. However, they lacked the skills of negotiation and diplomacy, and as a result, they confronted Moses too aggressively.

Their actions remind me of the attitude of the teens in the community high school that I direct. When they are unhappy with a situation, they confront me head-on. Most of the time, it is about the rules that have been imposed upon them by the community board that governs the school, although they only see me-the "enforcer." Their complaints are mainly about requirements and obligations. Their questions are usually "Why?" or "Who says?" When I explain the logic of our position, most of the time they acquiesce. Sometimes, though, they keep pushing until I finally can take no more and react angrily: "This is the way it is done, and you didn't do your part, so there are consequences."

That was the way it was with Korach, Dathan, and Abiram: God had had enough. What God was basically saying was: Stop questioning Me and just do what I say. I decided whom to choose, and you aren't going to change that. Because you refuse to listen, I will make an example of you, and woe to those who still don't get the message!

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