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Is Korach All Bad?

  • Is Korach All Bad?

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

Focal Point

  • 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 Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai'scongregation?" (Numbers 16:3)
  • Moses was much aggrieved and he said to Adonai, "Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them." (Numbers 16:15)
  • and your sons under your charge shall be careful to perform your priestly duties in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain. I make your priesthood a service of dedication; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death. (Numbers 18:7)

D'var Torah

Parashat Korach reminds me of the story of a small-town rabbi who preached on this portion no matter where he was in the year and no matter the group to whom he spoke. He said that he could always "count on the message." Similarly, one of our own Reform leaders claims, in jest, that this is the only sidrah on which he preaches, because he can say, "Don't be like Korach." The thinking behind this idea that a sermon on this portion is fitting for children, the Rotary Club, and at all special community observances is that the plot outline makes a good case for the punishment-reward cycle.

Whatever we believe about reward and punishment, obedience and disobedience, all of this thinking assumes that plot outcomes determine the Bible's moral standards. That may be how we are raised to read, but it certainly renders the story less interesting.

Putting aside either the fun or the simple morality of the Korach story, we need to go back and ask who was that amazing figure who briefly invaded the biblical narrative, added his streak of disobedience to the sacred canon, and then disappeared into the earth? Korach's end seems to suggest what Moses' spies alluded to when they announced that the land "eats those who dwell on it.…" And yet, isn't there something in us that wants to be a bit like Korach: challenging authority, asserting ourselves, and leading our own band?

To put it another way, are we not sometimes like Korach and his followers despite ourselves? Don't we sometimes wonder whether our leaders are either hogging the limelight or working for their own advantages? Certainly our economic conditions have demonstrated that trend! Is it possible that most of us are, like Korach, darkly jealous? I suggest that this is what gives Korach the merit to have a Torah portion in his name. Whatever the original intent of this parashah was, using it as a catalyst to examine our dark sides is certainly a worthwhile purpose.

Only five Torah portions derive their titles from the names of individuals. These five portions present the characters that begin the stories as principal characters within the sidrah's narratives. (A sixth, Chayei Sarah, includes Sarah's name, but is actually about her death and its aftermath rather than about her life.)

The five portions are Noach, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas. Three of them are in Numbers, a book that heightens the trials of the Israelites with micro-narratives in the midst of the great historical trek toward mature freedom and the continued attachment of moral demands to the Israelites' story. But each of these portions represents a figure whose role in the creation of the nation Israel is quite revolutionary. Each of these figures engage in behavior that was groundbreaking, and (even in the case of Korach) essential for the development of the Jewish nation. Two of them are rebels whose plots were foiled (Korach and Balak), two of them make the world better for the Jewish people (Pinchas and Jethro), and one of them is designated to save the world and then to set it sinning again. That role went to Noah, the righteous one of his generation, who has a little too much to drink one night and reminds us that even a redeemed world is susceptible to destruction.

Korach is clearly a bad guy, as he rebels against the one clear, pure leader of the Jewish people; there is no doubt about history's judgment of Korach. But the story becomes more important than its simple moral message when we reflect on the leader whom Korach opposes. Moshe Rabeinu, called in innocence to lead the people and flawed by his own physical imperfections and temper, emerges within the larger biblical story as tragic, incomplete, and monumental to the human challenge of leadership. Sometimes those who oppose him or his values are judged, and at other times (as with Zelophehad's daughters, who influenced change in inheritance law), the rebels guide him in new directions.

Other challenges to authority have better results for the challengers. For example, in I Samuel, the people complain to the prophet that they are tired of his leadership and want a king. That passage is in the haftarah for this Torah portion. But in that instance, God urges Samuel's compliance. Samuel, like Moses, becomes defensive, asking: Have I taken anything from the people? Have I benefited from this awful leadership task? Jethro challenges Moses' ability to judge all the people and warns him that eventually he will wear himself out. Moses heeds this challenge as well. A linguistic note is worth mentioning here: Korach accuses Moses and Aaron with the phrase rav lachem (you have gone too far [Numbers 16:3]), while Jethro warns his son-in-law with the phraseki chaveid mimcha hadavar (for the task is too heavy for you [Exodus 18:18]). The differing approaches of Korach and Jethro demonstrate how we can respond with either jealousy or concern.

Parashat Korach provides us with a unique opportunity to examine the entire concept of challenging authority-a value that Reform Judaism prizes-and to do a little soul searching about how we react to strong leaders. We may not celebrate Korach's arrogance, but we can certainly celebrate the acknowledgment of the dark side of leadership and follower-ship.

By the Way...

  • Then Samuel said to Israel…"Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of Adonai and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you." (I Samuel 12:1-3)
  • But Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (Exodus 18:17-18)

Your Guide

  1. Is Moses caught off guard by Korach's actions?
  2. Compare Moses' statement in Numbers 16:15 to that of Samuel in I Samuel 12:3. What are the similarities and differences?
  3. Compare the methods used by Jethro and by Korach to bring about change. What are the virtues and downsides of each approach?
  4. Read the various parashiyot named above in which rebellious people figure prominently. Discuss the motives of these rebels and their destinies, using the text to bolster your arguments before you use your own psychological presuppositions.
  5. Examine the times when Moses is challenged by, defensive towards, or even jealous of those who challenge him.
  6. Compare the haftarah (I Samuel 11:14-12:22) with the passage about Korach.
  7. Do you find the tale of Korach to be a great story in its own right, with moral messages that are secondary in importance to the information the story reveals about human nature?
  8. Can you identify times when modern world leaders have, like Moses, become tired of the burdens of leadership? 
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