Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Parsha contains six positive mitzvahs and three prohibitions
Rebellions of Korach, great grandson of Levi; and of Dasan, Aviram and Own, descendants of Reuven
Saga of family, jealousy, shrewd demagoguery and struggle for political dominance and power
Upon hearing the rebellious words, Moshe “fell on his face”
Moshe’s attempts at reconciliation fail
Earth opens and swallows some of the agitators; fire engulfs others
Aharon saves all but 14,700 people from a plague
Aharon’s position confirmed by a blossoming of his staff
Guarding the Tabernacle
Gifts to the priests
Gifts to the Levites
Levites’ gifts to priests
An Epic Production
(based on the interpretation of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag)
The Torah provides us with…
Cinematic-like techniques to hold our interest
Use of recurring words and phrases to hint at the underlying theme
A takeaway message for every reader in every generation
The cast consists of…
• Korach, who is Moshe and Aharon’s first cousin [Moshe’s father Amram and Korach’s father Izhar were brothers.]. He is the personification of the demagogue who, under the pretext of social justice and universal equality (communism?), in fact lusts for power-- rebelling against the authorities and seeking to replace them (“some are more equal than others”). He is joined by his band of grumblers and malcontents
• Dasan, Aviram and Own, grandsons of Reuven, and their followers
• 250 renowned, community chieftains who join Korach
• The rest of nation observing the goings-on, neither agreeing with Korach nor actively opposing him, waiting to see how events play out
According to the Ramban, whose view is that events in the Torah are reported chronologically, the Korach mutiny happened after the scouts/spies incident. The nation had become bitter and discouraged and began to blame Moshe for a series of tragic events…
• Conflagration at Taverah
• Deaths at Kivrot Ha’ta-aava
• Death of scouts/spies
• Nation condemned to die in the wilderness
• Leadership failure to intercede on behalf of the scouts/spies
Korach seizes the opportunity to channel this national discontent to his own benefit. He occupies center stage without uttering a word!
This is a tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy. Two unrelated groups--with completely different agendas--feel left out. Korach and his followers feel entitled to the religious priestly privileges. Korach, consumed with jealousy, wants to replace Aharon as the religious leader.
Members of the tribe of first-born Reuven are Korach’s neighbors (“woe to an evil person; woe to his neighbors”). They want desperately to recover their lost leadership and political power. Theirs is a political, not a religious, agenda.
According to Malbim, Korach felt he deserved to be the High Priest, since his cousin Moshe, already had the firstborn’s share by being appointed leader of the nation.
The tribe of Reuven lost their leadership roles to Joseph and Yehuda and experienced the transfer of priesthood and Divine service to the tribe of Levi. They wanted their power back!
The Parsha opens with “And Korach…took”. The verb to take is transitive and should have a direct object, though none appears:
• Ibn Ezra says that he took men. Perhaps he took them aside individually.
• Rashi and others think it means he took himself aside (i.e., separated himself to rebel) or that he took them (convinced them/seduced them) with his words.
• In the Gutnick Edition of the Chumash, the translation is he took issue with the leadership.
The Korach entourage assembles against Moshe and Aharon, complaining “(Rav Lachem) –You take too much upon yourselves, considering that the entire nation is holy and God is among them. Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” Their arrogant words communicate their feelings of superiority and entitlement. They felt that they, too, should be able to offer korbanot, and not just Aahron, whom they believed had the position because of nepotism. They refused to understand that one merits holiness by behavior and beliefs, or by the Word of God.
The scene shifts. Moshe sends for Dasan and Aviram, who challenge Moshe’s leadership as being corrupt, and an abuse of power. They respond, “we shall not go up” and then insolently accuse Moshe of having taken the nation out of Egypt, the land of abominations, that they now completely mischaracterize (ironically) as a “land flowing with milk and honey”. Furthermore, they add, Moshe cannot pull the wool over their eyes!
Moshe then turns his attention back to Korach and tells him to have his followers bring pans with smoking incense to the Sanctuary on the following day. Aharon will also bring his pan of smoking incense and God will decide who is entitled to offer korbanot.
The scene shifts back to the tents of Dasan, Aviram and followers, where Moshe warns the surrounding crowds to not touch anything and to leave. The people comply. Moshe warns Dasan, Aviram and families that the earth is about to swallow them up for their having scorned God. Almost immediately, the ground splits open and swallows them, their followers and their possessions and then closes.
Back at the Sanctuary, where Korach and his followers are located, a fire engulfs and kills the 250 people who brought the incense on pans. God commands that the pans be beaten and made into an overlay on the Altar as a reminder for all future generations to not follow in the footsteps of Korach and his group.
Despite the Divine actions against the rebellious groups, on the very next day the nation turns against Moshe and Aharon and blames them for the death of the people. Just like at the crossing of the Reed Sea, the Israelites’ grumbling resumes once the miracle ends. This is a further reminder of the ineffectiveness of miracles in creating faith.
Action Takes Place on Different “Sets”
Korach and his 250-person following of malcontents are at the Sanctuary; Dasan, Aviram and their followers are located at their political headquarters near their tents. Though the Torah does not share his words with us, Korach quietly capitalizes on both groups’ discontent by behind-the-scene-maneuvering, moving from location to location, inciting each group and trying to create a combined political/religious coalition with him as its leader. That the party headquarters of the Reuvenites is called “Mishkan Korach Dasan v’Aviram” confirms his deep involvement in their political cause.
The earth opens its “mouth”, as if speaking in judgment, “measure for measure” [That is, because they opened their mouths to challenge Moshe, the earth opened its mouth to swallow them.]
The Reuvenites and their followers are swallowed up by the earth.
The 250 followers of Korach are consumed by an engulfing fire.
Korach’s fate is less clear. The wording of the text is that only his 250 followers died by fire. In Sefer Bamidbar 26:10 the Torah states that Korach was swallowed up by the earth along with Dasan and Aviram. But the text in Sefer D’varim 11:6 seems to imply that Korach was NOT among those swallowed up by the earth.
There is the recurrence of the Hebrew root-word karov which means “nearness” and appears in…
• Bringing offerings near
• Moshe and Aaron’s being near to God
• Bringing-near the Levites to perform their duties
• Bringing the incense near
This is about who is privileged to “come near” to serve God and Man, to enter the Sanctuary—and who is not. It is about a demagogue who, on the surface, has legitimate complaints and expresses moral indignation and noble idealism—but really is seeking power.
Eyda, meaning community, sometimes means the entire nation and other times means the groups of rebels.
The Midrash Fills in the Gaps Regarding Korach’s Demagoguery
Korach asserts that the laws instituted by Moshe are oppressive. A particular widow who owned a field was prohibited from plowing with an ox and donkey together; could not sow with differing seeds; was required to leave parts of her crop to the poor; and was obligated to give tithes to the priests and the poor. She despaired and decided to sell her field and buy two lambs for clothing and food. When they gave birth, she had to give the first born to the priest; when they grew she needed to give the first of her shearing to the priest. She finally slaughtered the lambs for food, only to find out that she was required to give parts of the animals to the priest. “Such was the lot that befell this unfortunate woman! So much they do ‘in the name of God’!” concludes Korach.
Such a tale of woe is certain to touch the heart of anyone. But, as Nechama Leibowitz notes, there is no constructive discussion of the reason for the law. Also, Korach omits the many Torah laws that mandate special concern and provide protective legislation for widows and orphans. Furthermore, the demagogue Korach resorts to personal abuse and casting aspersions on the administrators of the Torah law, rather than examining the Torah law itself.
Korach purposely, purposefully and publicly mocks Moshe:
o He presents his followers dressed in garments made of blue strands and asks Moshe whether these garments require Tzitzes. When Moshe responds that they do, Korach scornfully asks how it is possible that only one blue strand of Tziztes acceptable on a regular garment but a garment filled with blue strands is still unacceptable unless it has one additional blue strand of Tzitzes.
o He asks Moshe whether a room filled with Torah scrolls requires a mezuzah (with its four Torah sections) on its doorpost. When Moshe says that it does, Korach mocks the seemingly pointless need for four more on the doorpost when the room already is filled with Torah (sections)!
Understanding “Moshe Fell on His Face” …
…after people ganged up on him and Aharon, accusing him of making himself so self-important and appointing Aharon as the priest despite their equal/better qualification.
Rashi interprets the phrase to mean that this fourth confrontation with the nation’s complaints left Moshe feeling weakened, powerless and helpless. Others think his falling face and his dropped jaw communicate a state of embarrassment or of gloom, depression and misery. Still others think it means he fell in prayer, seeking God’s guidance.
Rabbi Marc Angel cites studies concluding that those people who pay close attention to what they are doing can train their minds to cope better with stress. [As an example, meditation can transform one’s reaction to crisis by fostering a feeling of tranquility and flexibility.] Perhaps what the Torah is communicating is that Moshe was “attempting to separate his mind from the outside commotion and turning inward as a means of relying on his own resilience.” It was only after he strengthened himself and regained his inner composure that he could respond forcefully to the situation. The lesson for us, concludes Rabbi Angel, is that it is only when we “fall on our faces”—i.e., shut out the surrounding propaganda, lies and arrogant distortions of the truth that we are bombarded with daily—and remain loyal to our values and truths, that we will be able to nurture the inner strength needed to cope with our life challenges.
Seeking the Truth
“Any dispute for the sake of heaven will have enduring value, but every dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Mishnah Avot 5: 21).
Rabbenu Yona, cited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, explains that arguments for the sake of heaven are about truth. Arguments about truth are win-win situations. If one defends truth and wins that is a win. But losing is also a victory in that being defeated by the truth results in learning something new.
But arguments not for the sake of Heaven are about power. Even if one is victorious in the contest for power one loses because “in diminishing my opponents I have diminished myself”. In the Korach story Moshe’s win was ruined by the ensuing grumbling of the nation who accused him of “killing God’s people”.
This Korach saga dynamic is playing out today in the campaign against Israel, particularly the BDS movement. People, groups and ideologies with little or nothing in common have banded together to promote falsehoods designed to discredit Israel and Jews. Truth is of no concern. “Why bother with truth when all that matters is power?” This current situation is tragic because nothing can be achieved by sacrificing truth to the pursuit of power.
Life Lessons for Today
I. Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo sees in the Korach story the evil consequences of uncompromising, camouflaged jealousy. Korach was one of the greatest men of his generation. But his envy blinded him to the point where he engaged in character assassination of Moshe. His behind- the-scene incitement gained him many approving friends who heaped even more insults on Moshe. But in the end, he paid with his life.
II. Rabbi Sacks sees in the story the evil of Populism and the danger it poses to the future of freedom. Discontent with political leaders; widespread loss of trust in them; and a feeling that they are working for their own interest and not representing the interest of the nation triggers a rejection of the nation’s current political and cultural leaders. Out of this often is born Populism, “a political program or movement that champions the common person, usually by contrast with the elite. It typically combines elements of the left and the right, opposing large business and financial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labour parties” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Populists claim that they alone are the true voice of the people. “They stir up resentment against the establishment. They are deliberately divisive and confrontational. They promise strong leadership that will give the people back what has been taken from them... When populism is on the rise, tyranny is around the corner…People are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the promised utopia, and to tolerate great evils against whichever scapegoat the leader chooses to blame for the nation’s problems.” (Rabbi Sacks)
“The best indicator of populist politics is the delegitimation of other voices. Populists claim that they and they alone represent the people. Anyone who disagrees with them is essentially illegitimate” writes Princeton Professor Jan-Werner Muller (cited by Rabbi Sacks).
Korach, Dasam and Aviram’s rebellion was a populist movement. Korach claimed that the leaders had gone too far. He claimed that the leaders were corrupt and guilty of nepotism. He holds himself up to be the nation’s champion. He and his followers start spreading fake news: they accuse Moshe of…
• Exploiting his office for personal gain
• Presenting his own decisions as the will of God
Dasam and Aviram continue the fake news with their false nostalgia for Egypt; blaming Moshe for the spies; and accusing him of using his leadership position for his own personal gain. All of these were shameful lies!
Judaism urges disagreement, debate and dissent in the search for Truth. We are living in a time when unpopular views are silenced on university campuses; when public figures refuse to even consider another’s point of view; and when the media freely and regularly disseminates “fake news”. Today, Populism is on the rise worldwide; unless it is reversed tyranny is sure to follow.
III. Rabbi Leibtag suggests that the events in the parsha are not too different from modern day Israeli coalition politics. “Korach took two ostensibly ‘legitimate’ protest groups situated in two various locations and joined them together to form his own political power base”.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:17) considers the rebellion of Korach as the paradigm of a dispute that was "sh'lo l'shem sha'mayim" (not for the sake of Heaven). Korach‘s arguments seem to be "l'shem shamayim” but are really a red herring. “His primary interest is to promote himself, to build a powerbase from which he himself can emerge as the new leader.”
Rabbi Leibtag concludes that “Parshat Korach thus teaches us that whenever a dispute arises over community leadership or religious reform, before reaching conclusions we must carefully examine not only the claims, but also the true motivations behind the individuals who promote them…. every individual must constantly examine the true motivations behind all his spiritual endeavors.”
IV. Rabbi David Fohrman focuses on the name “Korach” and the repetition of its root elsewhere. The root-word korach means a bald spot on the head resulting from an intentional tearing out of one’s hair. This action was practiced by the Amorites as a mourning/idolatrous ritual and is prohibited by the Torah because we are considered a holy nation, elevated and separate from others. An additional prohibition relating to mourning is to not mutilate oneself (“lo sisgoddu”). The Rabbis perceived in the Hebrew words “lo sisgoddu” an additional prohibition of not letting our nation break up into conflicting factions.
On the surface, Korach’s complaint appears to be reasonable; since all are equally holy there should be no room for nepotism. But the subtlety of the words and expressions communicates his anger. His real intent is that he should be the priest, not Aharon. The nation was filled with grief when informed (after the spies’ incident) that it would take forty years to reach the Promised Land, not forty days. Dasan, Aviram and Own were especially enraged and accused Moshe of bringing the nation to die in the desert.
Mourning, grief and their progeny blind rage, can lead to an individual’s self-destruction – mourning rituals of cutting one’s head (korach) and making gashes on one’s body. Here the Korach story demonstrates the parallel effect of unchecked rage on the community: a concerted effort both to replace (“cut the head” off) the nation’s leader and to shatter the national unity into smaller individual groupings with differing--and possibly conflicting-- agendas.
V. The Lubavitcher Rebbe reasons that the Korach rebellion may have been prompted by the incident of the spies. They did not want to enter the Promised Land because they desired the exclusively spiritual existence in the desert and not the mundane physical demands that they would encounter in Israel (like earning a living). The downfall of the spies signaled that physical action is a more important priority than spiritual and intellectual endeavors. Korach argues that even though Moshe may, in fact, have been a more spiritual person since Judaism makes physical action the priority, aren’t his actions the same as Korach’s?
The Rebbe’s conclusion is that the mistake of both Korach and the spies was their failure to recognize the need for equilibrium in life. Our religion’s emphasis on action is not meant to result in a life of “meaningless ritual and spiritual bankruptcy” but to yield a harmonizing of the spiritual with the physical and mundane. Korach yearned for a priesthood that was entirely spiritual, aloof and removed from the people. In response to this, the Torah institutes the giving of gifts to the priests. This underscores the close connection between the people and the priests, with the former supplying their material assets to enable the latter to pursue the spiritual.