Korach is easily caricatured. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, paints the picture well:
Korach, a Hebrew of principal account, both by his family and by his wealth; one that was also able to speak well; and one that could easily persuade the people by his speeches; saw that Moses was in an exceeding great dignity, and was uneasy at it, and envied him on that account. He of the same tribe with Moses, and of kin to him. He was particularly grieved because he thought he better deserved that honourable post, on account of his great riches; and not inferior to him in his birth. (Antiquities of the Jews, 4:2)
In the biblical text of Parashat Korach and in much of the Jewish interpretive tradition, Korach is a jealous demagogue, stirring up rebellion against Moses and Aaron in the desert. Having challenged Moses and Aaron’s leadership, he agrees to the "Great Israelite Bake Off": Korach and his followers are to offer incense on fire pans, alongside Moses and Aaron — and God’s acceptance will show the chosen leader. Not surprisingly, Moses and Aaron win; Korach and his followers (along with Dathan and Abiram and their followers — we seem to have two rebellion stories here) — are either consumed by fire or swallowed up by the earth. God strikes the people with a plague, Aaron bravely intervenes, and the people stop complaining — at least until the next parashah.
We could easily compare Korach to flawed would-be leaders of our own time, pretending to be speaking for the people while really grasping for power themselves. But Korach’s rebellion is the most famous of the Book of Numbers, and perhaps the entire Torah. Moses and Aaron take this rebellion seriously, as does God. So much so, that the rebels’ fire pans are hammered down to make a metal plating for the altar, integrated as a sign for all time (Numbers 17:3). What is the deeper nature of the challenge that Korach poses and what is it supposed to teach us?
An excursion into another field might shed some light. Many rabbis come from a long line of rabbis. I come from a line of engineers. My earliest memories include seeing a thin iron ring on my father’s pinky finger, as a marker of his professional status; and to this day I feel a kinship with anyone I meet who wears one. These rings are particular to Canadian engineers. The institution goes back to 1922, following a Canadian bridge disaster in which 75 people died due to an error of design. Legend has it that the rings were made from the metal of that collapsed bridge, and Rudyard Kipling was called upon to write an “Oath of Obligation,” to be said by new graduates when receiving their rings. In taking on this obligation, the engineers commit to avoiding, “Bad Workmanship or Faulty Material in aught that concerns my works before mankind as an Engineer, or in my dealings with my own Soul before my Maker.” There is also a commitment to “strive my utmost against jealousy or the belittling of my working-colleagues in any field of their labour.” Finally, the engineers ask forgiveness for any future failings, “praying that in the hour of my temptations, weakness and weariness, the memory of this my Obligation and of the company before whom it was entered into, may return to me to aid, comfort, and restrain.” The rings are meant to remind them of this obligation.
I quote this at length because I think it speaks directly to the double challenge posed by Korach. First, Korach claims to have achieved perfection: “all the community are holy” (Numbers 16:3). The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz1 aptly notes that Korach confuses achievement with aspiration; he does not understand that holiness is a process, and perfection is perpetually around the corner and just beyond our grasp. Second, Korach is motivated by, and feeds into, jealousy of Moses and Aaron: “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). He sees leadership as a right rather than as a responsibility (though at this point in the narrative, it is hard to imagine anyone wanting Moses’ job). Korach is in dire need of the engineer’s iron ring, to remind him both of his own fallibility, and the need to resist jealousy.
In contrast, Moses and Aaron exhibit true leadership. When Korach accuses him, Moses falls on his face. According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi,2 he does this, “to examine whether the accusations against him had any basis.” And Aaron, when facing a plague resulting from God’s anger at the uprising against him and his brother, takes his fire pan in hand once more, not to defend his authority but to defend his people.
It is easy to demonize Korach and valorize Moses and Aaron. But Rabbi Rachel Cowan3 suggests that each of us “live with an ongoing conflict between an ‘inner Moses’ and an ‘inner Korach’ — between humility and arrogance, between selflessness and selfishness.” It is for this reason that the fire pans are incorporated into the altar as a reminder: to keep us from the arrogance of assuming that we are immune to arrogance! As the poem that follows Cowan’s essay so evocatively reads:
Moses sure of God’s voice
and Korach sure of his own —
each trying to tell the difference
and righteous anger —
a line so thin
thin as a flame
in a fire pan.
(Laurie Patton, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, p.913)
My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, writes:
The plating on the altar, then, is not simply a reminder of Korach’s sin. It is even more a reminder of the sin that lurks in the heart of the pious within all of us, a perpetual warning that it is not at all clear who is the saint and who is the sinner, that each of us is both saint and sinner, and the line separating the two is very murky indeed. (Gillman, Traces of God [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2006], p.24)
Or, as my father wisely put it when I asked him to share with me what he remembered about the engineer’s ring: “The fact that I’m certain doesn’t mean that I’m correct.” A good lesson for Korach, and for us all.
1. Cited in Shai Held, The Heart of Torah, v.2 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; Philadelphia: JPS, 2017), p.139
2. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg compiled, quoted from Tanya, in Torah Gems v.3 (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1998), p.84
3. Rabbi Rachel Cowan, in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., Andrea L. Weiss, assoc. ed., The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (NY: WRJ and URJ Press, 2008), p. 911
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.