Rebellions of Korach, Dasan and Avihu…Moshe’s attempts at reconciliation…earth splits open and fire engulfs…Aharon saves all but 14,700 people from a plague…confirmation of Aharon’s position via a blossoming of Aharon’s staff…priestly gifts…gifts for the Levites…Levites’ gifts to priests
An epic production
The Torah provides us with a cast; a screenplay; a plot; cinematic-like techniques to hold our interest; use of recurring words and phrases to hint at the underlying theme; and a takeaway message for every reader in every generation.
The cast consists of
• Korach , Moshe and Aaron’s first cousin, who is the personification of the demagogue rebelling against the authorities and seeking to replace them
• Dasan and Aviram, sons on Reuven (and the ones who told Pharaoh in Egypt that it was Moshe who killed an Egyptian beating a Jew) and their followers
• 250 renowned, community chieftains who join Korach
• The rest of Hebrew nation, who observe the goings on, then flee in fear, then complain to Moshe
The story-- which occurred after the Spies incident takes place at a time when the nation had become bitter and discouraged and began to question Moshe’s leadership-- is about sibling rivalry and jealousy. Two separate groups feel left out– 1) Korach who desires the priestly privileges and 2) members of the tribe of first-born Reuven who want desperately to recover their lost leadership and political power.
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. (Moshe’s father Amram was the older brother of Korach’s father Yitzhar.)
The tribe of Reuven had experienced the transfer of leadership roles to Joseph and Yehudah and the transfer of priesthood and Divine service to the tribe of Levi. They wanted their power back!
Action takes place on different “sets”: Korach and his 250-person following of malcontents were at the Sanctuary; Dasan, Aviram and their followers were located at their headquarters near their tents. Korach capitalizes on this discontent as he silently (in the text, Korach does not utter a single word!) moves to and from each location, inciting each group and trying to create a combined political/religious coalition with him as its leader. In the words of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, “Korach took two ostensibly ‘legitimate’ protest groups and joined them together to form his own political power base”. That the party headquarters of the Reubenites is called “Mishkan Korach Dasan v’Aviram” confirms Korach’s deep involvement in their cause.
The Levites die by an engulfing fire and the Reubenites are swallowed up by the earth. Korach‘s fate is less clear. The wording of the text is that only his 250 followers died by fire. But 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.
The phraseology linking the stories includes the recurring Hebrew root Karov which means “bringing offerings near”; Moshe and Aaron’s being near to God; “bringing-near” the Levites to perform their duties; “bringing near” the incense. The stories are about who is privileged to come near to God, to enter the Sanctuary—and who is not.
Eyda, meaning community, recurs sometimes meaning the entire nation and other times meaning the groups of rebels.
“Too much is yours” and “Is it too small an item” are charges and countercharges levied.
Some highlights of the script
The Parsha opens with “And Korach…took”. The ambiguity here is that the verb to take is transitive and should have a direct object, though none appears. Ibn Ezra says that he took men. Rashi and others think it means he took himself aside (i.e., separated himself to rebel) or that he “took them” (convinced 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 words communicate their arrogant and unrealistic belief that they have the innate superiority and privilege and entitlement of Holiness. They refused to understand that one needs to demonstrate appropriate behavior to become “holy”.
The scene shifts when Moshe then sends for Dasan and Aviram. They respond “we shall not go up” and then accuse Moshe of having taken the nation out of Egypt, the land of abominations, that they now completely mischaracterize (ironically) as having been 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.
Back to the tents of Dasan, Aviram and followers, where Moshe warns the surrounding crowds to leave and not touch anything. 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 up.
Back at the Sanctuary, where Korach and his followers are located, a fire engulfs 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. This is a reminder to us all of the ineffectiveness of miracles as a way of creating faith.
The Midrash fills in the gaps regarding Korach’s behavior
Korach asserts that the laws instituted by Moshe are oppressive.
A particular widow who owned a field was prohibited from plowing with an ox 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 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’!”
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. Furthermore, 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 the Torah law itself.
Korach purposely and publicly mocks Moshe
• 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 is acceptable on a regular garment but a garment filled with blue strands is still unacceptable unless it has one additional blue strand of Tzitzes.
• He asks Moshe whether a room filled with Torahs 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)!