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Parashat Korah
June 21, 2014 – 23 Sivan 5774

Annual (Numbers 16:1-18:32): Etz Hayim p. 860; Hertz p. 639
Triennial (Numbers 16:1-17:15): Etz Hayim p. 860; Hertz p. 639
Haftarah (I Samuel 11:14-12:22): Etz Hayim p. 877; Hertz p. 649 

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina


Moses and Aaron’s authority is challenged twice: first by Korah, a Levite who gathers 250 Israelite nobles, and then by Dathan and Abiram, who claim that Egypt, not Canaan, is the true land of milk and honey. Moses suggests that fire-pans of incense be brought to test Korah’s claims, but God threatens the rebels’ immediate destruction. Moses and Aaron beg for clemency, but as predicted by Moses, the earth swallows the rebels and their possessions (Korah’s sons are spared).

God orders that the rebels’ fire pans be attached to the Tabernacle altar to remind the people of the attempted insurrection. But the Israelites criticize God’s punishment, leading to a plague that kills 14,700. Next, God demands that the tribal leaders deposit a staff into the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff sprouts almonds, serving as another reminder of recent events.

The Israelites now fear approaching the Tabernacle. God assures that only Levites can be punished for trespassing. To ease the Levites’ burden, God outlines the sacred gifts that they and the priests will receive.

Theme #1: He’s a Rebel

Now Korah, 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 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 Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:1-3)

Korah’s challenge to Moses’s leadership represents the most organized attempt at unseating the great prophet. Korah failed because he wanted to seize greatness and strength for himself with his own hands. Greatness is good only if it is bestowed on a man by Heaven. You cannot go out and take it for yourself. -- The Rabbi of Przysucha

Why is the verb “took,” referring to what Korah, Datan, and Abiram, all did, written in the singular and not in the plural? Because each and every one of them was in this battle only for himself. -- Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer

Like Aaron and Miriam before them, Korah’s men accused Moses of abusing personal power, upsetting the equality of believers. But this accusation, important as it is, hardly does justice to the immense importance of the claim made by Korah. If all Israelites receive revelation equally, without the necessity of mediation, they need neither leaders nor priesthood. Bid Moses and Aaron goodbye. If the people are good in the sight of God by virtue of the revelation, they do not have to strive to become good. Bid the Commandments goodbye. If every man is a judge of revelation, bid the law and the community goodbye. This is heresy. This is the end of Israel. -- Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader

Questions for Discussion:

The Rabbi of Przysucha’s understanding of the source of success is curious, especially since we know of so many people who achieve their dreams after years of persistence and hard work. Is greatness a matter of being “born with it?” Or is there a proper path that combines being both pro-active and accepting of fate? Is it fair to say that our determination and effort won’t guarantee us a specific destination, but will benefit us in the long run in some way?

Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer claims that the grammar of the opening words of our Torah portion is a sign of selfish motivation, not of fixing society as a whole. Our cynical view of business and political leaders leads many to say that “everyone has an agenda” -- usually one that benefits themselves or a small group of people. Are there ways to find people who lead with a beneficent spirit? How can we discern between those who do and those who don’t?

Wildavsky sees Korah’s complaints as a desire for a more individualistic (and, some would say, libertarian) society, a desire that is incompatible with the leadership structure that God, Moses and Aaron had worked to assemble. Is it possible to see Korah as a pursuer of populist liberty? Or, as Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer suggests, is he merely selfish and nothing more?

Theme #2: I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet ...

Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. (Numbers 16:31-32)

Moses hints at a dramatic conclusion to Korah’s rebellion, and God does not disappoint.

Back of this story lies the fact that in some crisis of the sort [Moses] came out victorious through the crushing of his opponents. His conduct here is not inconsistent with the humility attributed to him. If it had been his pre-eminence that was challenged he would have taken it quietly; but a charge of deceit and self-seeking struck at the thing which was absolutely essential to all that he did -- his integrity. -- Fleming Jones, Personalities of the Old Testament

The anointed one of Leviticus, the high priest, is only a cultic leader. He has no political role. The Priestly writings of the Pentateuch reject any combination of political and Priestly rights. … Thus, the two hundred and fifty chieftains of the community who claimed Priestly rights were destroyed by fire. -- Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices

Why was Korah punished this way? … It was not enough that they merely be able to restrain themselves; on the contrary, they fanned the flames of the argument [with Moses], and the earth was simply unable to exist beneath them. So “the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up.” -- Harei Ba-Shamayim

Questions for Discussion:

To Jones, Moses does not call for Korah's destruction in order to flex God's “muscles,” but to desperately defend his reputation as a faithful and selfless leader. If so, is this why Moses asks God to cause the remarkable and destructive earthquakes? Or does Moses, inadvertently or not,  display some uncharacteristic hubris by showing that he has the backing of the Ruler of the Universe?

Knohl explains that one of the reasons that Korah’s "men of renown" are punished alongside him is because these 250 men already are already popular and political leaders, and therefore must be kept separate from cultic responsibility. In today's world, the intertwining of religion and national affairs often is a controversial subject. What are the potential benefits and downsides of the mixing of the two? Is the Torah prescient by foreshadowing this issue?

Harei Ba-shamayim claims that the earth swallows the rebels in this story because it is physically unable to withstand the chaos and tumult caused by these individuals. This “eruption” can be compared to the way that humans lose their temper and lose control when the circumstances of life become too difficult. What are the best ways to cope when we wish to “erupt?” Is there something cathartic about losing control momentarily, provided we are not causing great harm on those around us? Or ought we try to respond in more measured ways?

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