The ongoing turmoil among the Israelites during their protracted desert sojourn reaches its height in this week's Torah portion, with the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their followers. This crisis is not fomented, as before, by a gaggle of ordinary malcontents, bellyaching about a boring diet and longing to eat meat. Rather these are "chieftains of the community, chosen of the assembly, men of repute." Never before has the fragile unity of the formative Israelite community been so imperiled.
What is presented as one rebellion is likely the conflation of two separate narratives (see The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition).1 The first involves the issue of priestly primacy, in which Korah contests the special status conferred on other branches of the tribe of Levi, to which he, himself, belongs. He complains, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?"
A midrashic tradition (B'midbar Rabbah 18:2) suggests that this is, at its root, a family dispute. Korah, a first cousin to Moses and Aaron, was passed over for leadership of the Kohathite clan in favor of their cousin Elzaphan, whose ancestry ranks lower in birth order. The midrash envisions a confrontation in which Korah proclaims, "I, by right, should be the prince of the families, yet Moses appointed the son of Uzziel . . . [I, Korach,] shall dispute his decision and put to nought all that has been arranged by him." Thus understood, Korah's complaint does not, as it may appear, proceed from democratic or egalitarian motives, but from pettiness, jealousy, and frustrated ambition. Thus, Pirkei Avot 5:19 concludes, Korah's controversy was "not for Heaven's sake."
Interwoven with that revolt is a challenge to the civil authority of Moses and Aaron by Dathan, Abiram, and the tribe of Reuben. Their grievance is more basic, resonating with earlier expressions of discontent. "Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?" As Psalm 106 characterizes it, this complaint too is derived from personal selfishness. "There was envy of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the Eternal. The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan, closed over the party of Abiram. A fire blazed among their party, a flame that consumed the wicked." Later commentators, too, while differing widely in their interpretations, generally conclude that the rebels' complaints were illegitimate and their motives impure (see A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Harvey J. Fields).2
That consensus, however persuasive it may be, is the verdict of history, rendered by those with a vested interest in affirming Moses's leadership and the divine imprimatur with which it was endowed. It has been observed that, "History is written by the victors."3 And history is replete with richly justified rebellions suppressed successfully by tyrants, whether temporarily or with finality. As this d'var Torah is being written, the streets of Egypt are thronged with protesters calling for the replacement of an authoritarian, autocratic regime, with democracy, economic opportunity and fundamental freedoms, with the ultimate outcome very much in doubt. Whatever the end result, it seems highly unlikely that this is the last such uprising we will see in the Arab world.
Conversely, even the most legitimate of uprisings can, if they succeed, be perverted to illegitimate ends. In Iran and Gaza, for example, totalitarian groups exploited popular protests, coming to power by democratic means, but retaining it through repression, intimidation, and violence. Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party, too, came into power democratically.
The situation in Egypt is an extraordinarily challenging one for us, as Americans and Jews. We cannot but sympathize with the plight of ordinary Egyptians, deprived of the human rights we regard as universal. Who among us would willingly exchange places with them? And yet, a stable Egyptian government, committed to its treaty with Israel and opposed to Islamic extremism, is a vital component of regional stability, both America's and Israel's strategic interests, and the hope of a peaceful future.
Some contend that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is no longer the extremist group it once was, but the prospect of a government in which it would play a leading role is disquieting at best. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and "an adamant member of the Muslim Brotherhood" in her teenage years in Kenya, considers it likely that it will win the forthcoming elections in Egypt, given the weakness of Egypt's secular democratic forces. She writes, "The Muslim Brotherhood will insist that a vote for them is a vote for Allah's law. But the positions of power in government will not be filled by God and his angels. These positions will be filled by men so arrogant as to put themselves in the position of Allah. And as the Iranians of 2009 have learned to their cost, it is harder to vote such men out of office than to vote them in" (The Huffington Post, February 8, 2011).4
In describing the sudden, violent, spectacularly gory demise of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their rebellious supporters, the Torah makes crystal clear who it regarded to be in the right and who in the wrong. By comparison, the outcome of contemporary rebellions is much more ambiguous. And both those who instigate them, and those whose power they challenge, often assert that they possess a God-given mandate. Perhaps the portion's ultimate lesson is that all such claims should be regarded with utmost skepticism.
- The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, gen. ed., W. Gunther Plaut (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,012
- A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Harvey J. Fields, Volume Three: Numbers and Deuteronomy (New York: UAHC Press, 1993) pp. 47-51)
- attributed to Winston Churchill
- "Get Ready to Compete with the Muslim Brotherhood: Egypt Could Chart a 'Third Way,'" Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Huffington Post, February 8, 2011
False or opportunistic leaders prey on the public at its weakest, most vulnerable moments. They may have neither the best interests of the public in mind nor great ideas for improving the situation at hand. What they often do have is a knack for saying the right thing when people are beaten down and willing to listen.
Korah, together with Dathan, Abiram, and On are such leaders. Our Torah portion begins at a most opportune moment to mount a challenge against God's appointed leader, Moses. In the previous parashah, ten out of twelve spies come back from a scouting mission to the Land of Canaan with a frightening report, and the Israelites despair of ever entering the Land. They cry out against Moses, provoking the Eternal to condemn the generation of the Exodus to die in the desert. It's at this toxic moment that Korah and his cronies bring their grievances to Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy. . .Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?" (Numbers 16:3)
Dathan and Abiram twist the spies' words, describing Egypt – the house of bondage – as the land of milk and honey (16:13). They present neither an alternative vision of leadership nor a compelling vision of the people's future. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are not leaders; they simply challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Their agenda is not in the public's interest-it's personal.
Rabbi Block writes eloquently about the freedom movements rising throughout the Arab world. Particularly in the case of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, there are very real concerns that a group of leaders will arise who do not have genuine concern for human dignity – the cornerstone of the Torah's worldview. It remains to be seen whether would-be Korahs will rise again or whether, as we all hope and pray, a true regard for human rights will take hold.
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