Parashat Korach: Why did Korach and his followers receive such a harsh punishment when they confronted Moses?

Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32

D'Var Torah By: Justin Felder

“Now Korach, 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 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 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 ?”
--Numbers 16:1 – 16:3

…the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, ‘The earth might swallow us!’ And a fire went forth from the Eternal and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.”
Numbers 16:31 – 16:35

God has a relatively long fuse. If you enslave the chosen people, God’ll give you nine chances before really losing it. Live a life of debauchery and sin? God’ll send someone to ask you to change your ways. Deny a mission from God? God’ll give you another chance, and with enough apologizing, the whale will spit you back up. Why, then, in Parshat Korach does God display such a short temper?

The portion begins: "Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites."  They weren’t exactly pleased with Moses’ leadership, so they took their complaint right to the top. Korach exclaimed to Moses: "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." God wasn’t pleased, and Korach and his followers were swallowed up into the ground.

Why? Arguably, Judaism was started by a stance against authority when Abraham smashed his father’s idols; so why should Korach face such wrath? The difference lies in intent. The only goal that Korach has with his complaint is to make himself look better at Moses’ expense. The rest of the portion leads you to believe that Korach was trying to advance his, and his supporters, interests by usurping Moses. He did not have a purpose in antagonizing Moses; it’s something your grandmother might call kvetching : being negative for the sake of being negative.

Given all this, it is easy to see why Korach was in the wrong, even greatly in the wrong; but the question remains, why did God act with such a swift hand?

I believe the answer is that God was trying to make a point. Korach and his followers seemed to forget all that Moses had done for them, even going so far as to refer to Egypt as a “land of milk and honey.” It was clear that Korach was simply trying to “bully” Moses and Aaron: pulling himself up by pushing them down. This shows not only defiance, but arrogance and ingratitude. All of these faults piled up led God to his action.

Related Questions

  • How does this portion relate to our everyday lives?

Easy. Unfortunately, many people find that the best way to advance their own interests is to try to bring down others. It’s sad that our politicians are often much better at pointing out their opponent’s faults than explaining their own positive qualities.

  • Does this portion relate to leadership?

This portion relates to leadership, and how you go about being a leader. Korach is clearly the antithesis of what would be called “Jewish” leadership, within or outside NFTY. Elections amongst youth rarely see the mud-slinging and negativity that seems to come with adulthood, but slander and talking behind people’s backs is just as bad. Ultimately, attacking someone else just for the sake of attacking them is about as bad as what Korach did.

Taking Action

  • Teach the Text

This anti-model of leadership that is embodied by Korach is something that is talked about in theory a lot, but real examples are difficult to find. We can talk all we want about libel and slander, and how they are wrong, but putting an actual Torah story, and an actual consequence handed down by God, can be a very effective tool to use in teaching.

  • What Sort of Leader are You?

Let the story of Korach inspire you to take some time to look at your own leadership skills and style. Are there parts of you that are a little like Korach? Are there parts of your leadership style that you’d like to change? Take some time and think about it. And then figure out how you can make those changes.

Food For Thought

Was God too harsh, or did Korach deserve his punishment?

Reference Materials

Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41

Originally published: