"Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram . . . descendants of Reuben-to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty 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 16:1-3).
Who were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram? All had status of import: Korah was a Levite, and Dathan and Abiram were from the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn.
Each tribe had been given its role, living in formation around the Mishkan toprotect one another from outside attack and be reminded of the centrality of God and Torah. The Levites had special privilege for the porterage of the Mishkan. Each Levite clan had a specific task.
Moses and Aaron themselves were Levites, set apart for their particular roles as Prophet and High Priest. They were Kohathites; their father Amram was a son of Kohath. Amram's brother was Izhar; so Korah was their first cousin. The Kohathites were given the most prestigious task to care for the Mishkan 's sacred items including the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 4:1-20). The Kohathites were warned never to look upon these objects, lest they gaze accidentally and be killed. Aaron and his sons covered them before the Kohathites drew near. The role of the Kohathites required great courage and careful dedication to instruction.
As shared a few weeks ago about Parashat B'midbar, Rambam taught that when they carried the Holy Ark, the Kohathites faced inward, away from the outside world, (Hilchot Klei HaMikdash 2:13). The men were to focus entirely upon their task; they were not to be distracted by the outside world, not even on the direction in which they were moving; they were to devote all their attention to the Ark.
For Korah, the mitzvah to carry the Ark was onerous task, not a privilege. He could not appreciate the importance of his own essential role. He yearned for what he could not have-the perceived power of Aaron and Moses – and rationalized their destruction for his gain.
How was Korah able to gather a cohort around him? Moses had just navigated the people through two precipitous events-their betrayal of God in refusing to enter the Promised Land, and the stoning to death of the wood-gatherer who violated Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-36). Hadn't the people realized that Moses had saved them, negotiating their punishment from immediate death to wandering forty additional years?
Moses was distraught when he learned of Korah's betrayal. "When Moses heard this, he fell on his face . . . (He said), "Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of the Eternal's Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that [God] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the Eternal that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?" (Numbers 16:4, 8-11).
What made Korah think that he deserved the priesthood and that God would support him? Yet he plotted, certain of his righteousness. The midrash notes that Korah had been "controller in Pharaoh's palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasury. The Holy Blessed One said to him, 'What benefit do you derive from this? You are not master over them'. . . (B'midbar Rabbah 18:15). God perceived earlier Korah's quest for power. Korah confused privilege with ownership .
The challenge not to confuse privilege with ownership is timeless: to be stewards of the earth and not reckless lords; to manage employees, partners, and children with appreciation; to learn and then fulfill the role that each of us plays in the work of the world, without greed or envy.
Consider this commentary on "The Israelites shall camp each man with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance," (Numbers 2:2). The Sages focus on the concept of the individual Israelite "each with his standard":
Every Jew must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him; had there been someone just like him, there would have been no need for him. Indeed, every single person is someone new in this world, and it is his duty to improve all his ways until all Israel have attained perfection. (Bet Aharon, mentioned in Itturei Torah, vol. 5, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1996], pp. 21-22)
We are unique; but that awareness could lead to self-aggrandizement. So the midrash reminds us of the weight of that honor: to improve ourselves-not to improve each other. Indeed, it reminds us to improve ourselves for the sake of one another. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught: "Each person is created at a certain time, by God's plan, to fulfill a certain role in creation. Until a person is created, he is not worthy of being in the world. Unfortunately, each person must confess every year: 'Now that I have been created, it is as if I had not been created' – I was meant to fulfill a certain role, but have not managed to fulfill it, so it is as if I was not created" (Olat Ra'ayah, mentioned in Torah Gems, Itturei Torah , vol. 3, complied by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992, pp. 16-17).
Korah illustrates that aspect of ourselves that denies reality because we prefer an alternative one. Discontent with our lot, we seek another, not by looking within to change ourselves but by undermining what is around us. We have an adulterous affair, we abuse substances, we treat those we love with indignation and arrogance, suggesting that our problems or situation are their faults. "Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?" (Numbers 16:3). We state falsehood with such certainty that it seems true.
Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: "Even more frustrating than the fact that evil is real, mighty and tempting is the fact that it thrives so well in the disguise of the good, that it can draw its nutriment from the life of the holy. In this world, it seems, the holy and the unholy do not exist apart, but are mixed, interrelated and confounded," (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, [New York: Harper and Row, Publishers,1966], p. 369).
How easy it is to confuse lust with love, greed with need, mere knowledge with wisdom.
Let us understand Aaron's role in this encounter. Was Aaron known to the people outside of his all-encompassing priestly role? His leadership seemed to be defined by duty rather than vision; in this sense, he was the consummate Levite. Yet, until now, the Israelites had never truly experienced Aaron outside of his very-defined priestly duties.
Five earlier episodes illustrate aspects of Aaron that the Israelites may or may not have witnessed. First, Aaron somehow left Egypt and met Moses on his way back from the Burning Bush, accompanying him back to Pharaoh. Second, confronting Pharaoh with Moses, Aaron performed the first plagues yet took no credit for his efforts. Did the slaves ever learn that it was Aaron, as God's and Moses's agent, who turned the waters to blood and brought frogs upon the land? Third, during the attack of the Amalekites, Aaron helped Moses to keep his arms upraised so the people would prevail. Fourth, his building the Golden Calf revealed a hand that was neither deterrent nor evidence of leadership. Finally, his reaction to the death of his sons was hidden and private, happening during the period of ordination that allowed him no formal or public mourning. (Was Korah, a cousin, aware of this tragedy?)
Aaron and Korah were opposites: one the humble embodiment of duty, the other a jealous seeker of power.
". . . Moses said to Aaron, 'Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the Eternal: the plague has begun!' Aaron took it, as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked," (Numbers 17:11-13).
Aaron went into their midst, whispering words of comfort and consolation, gently swinging the incense, dissipating the ether of death with the soothing fragrance of the Mishkan . Until now he was titular High Priest. Like Moses, his figurehead was frightening and awesome; the human Aaron was unknown to them. But suddenly, his compassion and courage were manifest. The people healed. God's High Priest became their High Priest.
So, too, the loving people in our lives are willing to walk among those of us who are damaged, trying to heal us, even when their own lives have been deeply wounded by us.
Perhaps his action brought the people an insight about themselves. To be God's people meant to take risks, to walk among the dying and bring them back to life, to enter the Land even when afraid.
Earlier at Sinai, God named the Israelites an am s'gulah, "a treasured people." It was conditional on Torah observance: "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," (Exodus 19:5-6). The Israelites were to be loyal and dutiful. Thus far, they were neither. It's no surprise then that they could be drawn to another defier, Korah, who, if he had succeeded, would have undermined all divine authority. Aaron's action said: "I am a Levite whose eyes are never distracted from the truest duties of theMishkan , to serve God by serving you. I forgive your challenge of me. I love you."And his action became a prayer, averting further destruction.
Thus taught Hillel: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it, loving your fellow creatures and drawing them near to Torah,"( Pirkei Avot 1:12).
* "You Can't Always Get What You Want," Let It Bleed, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1969
Throughout the Bible, God is challenged. Abraham challenges God. Pharaoh challenges God. Jezebel challenges God. The Israelites constantly challenge God.
What is it that distinguishes these challenges and God's responses to them? Parashat Korachgives us a little insight. We read of four different challenges this week, and four levels of response. Korah bands with Dathan and Abiram against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites gather against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron beseech God not to destroy the entire community. The chieftains of Israel accept the challenge God puts forth for the right to be in the Divine Presence.
Korah's rebellion is the most severe. As Jacob Milgrom points out, Korah and his band are "demoralized by the majority report of the scouts and condemned by their God to die in the wilderness" (The JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990] p. 129). They are angry, and perhaps jealous of their cousin Moses, and they express their anger by inciting the community. Even our typically humble Moses denounces the revolt, telling Korah rav lachem, "You have gone too far,"echoing Korah's his own words from a few verses earlier (Numbers 16:3, 7). The people of the Korahite rebellion are utterly destroyed, either sent to Sheol or burned to ash by fire from God.
When the Israelites rebel as a community, they do so out of fear. They have just seen 250 of their religious leaders die, and they are afraid that it is because of Moses and Aaron and this invisible God they are following around the wilderness. God sees this as punishable by death, but Moses and Aaron intervene, challenging God to reconsider punishing them with the same ferocity as Korah. God does reconsider, and the reaction to the Israelites is modified. When the chieftains accept God's challenge, none are punished because God sets the terms. Their acceptance shows a willingness to adhere to the results of the challenge. Their staffs do not sprout, and only Aaron is given the right to be in the Ohel Mo-eid the "Tent of Meeting."
God can take a challenge, but not every confrontation is equal. The difference is in the intent of the challenger. If we are acting out of anger, jealousy, or fear, we are demonstrating a lack of faith in God's leadership and ability to protect us. If we put forth a challenge out of a desire to change the world for the better, perhaps God will regard our request. Our greatest hope of this comes when we challenge ourselves to become better versions of ourselves. May these challenges help us to nurture our communities to fuller Jewish lives.
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