Numbers 16 – 18
Korach: The hysteria and downfall associated with false revolutionaries
We are taught through our Rabbis that the name of a parsha is a shoresh (root, or sum) of the entire parsha. Very few parashiot are named after a person, but so infamous is the story of Korach and his rebellion against Aaron and Moses that his name is fixed in the order of the Torah portions.
In fact the story of his brazen rebelliousness and revolt was so dramatic that his name actually made it into one of the 613 commandments that were given to Israel to observe for all time, as we read:
“And be not like Korach and his assembly.”
| Velo-yihyeh cheKorach vecha’adato
Summary of Previous Parsha: How did it come to this
In order to understand what Korach’s contentions are we have to understand that the Nation of Israel has passed up an opportunity to ascend to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). We find that they panic in Parshat Shelach when they hear the negative report provided by 10 out of the 12 scouts. When they finally get their hysteria in check they find that they are too late. Their realization of this happens with tragic results, they attempt to go up to the Land without the blessing of Hashem and without the accompaniment of the Ark and the get crushed by the Amorites and Canaanites.
The Rise of Korach: Double-Talk
Where Parshat Korach picks up we find that the people are fed up with the management; namely Moses and Aaron. In their resentment of their leaders they challenge the entire institution of the priesthood and the leadership of Moses. What is Korach’s argument? In Numbers 16:3 we have the assembly of the elders of Israel saying to Moses and Aaron:
“It is too much for you!
For the entire assembly – all of them –
are holy and Hashem is among them;
why do you exalt yourself over
the congregation of Hashem?”
| ki chol-ha’edah kulam
| kedoshim uvetocham Hashem
| umadua titnase’u
| al-kehal Hashem
And in the midst of this we see Korach rise up as a Che Guevara like character, a revolutionary and seeming champion of equality. It seems to be a decent and reasonable concept, G-d has called His entire nation to be holy, set apart for G-d; no one is better than the other. However the hypocrisy, as with many so-called revolutionaries, was as that at the same time as attacking the validity of the government and institutions, he insists he can do a better job at their helm. Thus we see Korach attacking the institution of priesthood and in the same breath suggesting that he been appointed High Priest. The double-talk doesn’t stop there. Yet here the Torah gives us a good example of how to deal with people who come aggressively to us with their fallacious claims: hear them out and wait for the true intentions to reveal themselves.
You see at first the argument seems to be one of reasonable concern for Moses and Aaron. It is true that “rav lachem” can mean “You’ve gone too far,” but in can also mean “it is too much for you.” In other words, “you’re overwhelming yourself Moses and Aaron.” However, their true intentions come out as they are allowed to speak. Their real feelings surface as, “you think your better than us!”
Divisiveness Begins with Alienation
Starting with the beginning words of the parsha we see that Torah is in fact offering proof that supports the claim of Korach that he is just as qualified. Not only does it provide his credentials as a Levite, but he is also a Kohain. Thus the text states:
“Korach son of Izhar
son of Kohath, son of Levi separated himself.”
| Vayikach Korach ben-Yitshar
| ben-Kehat ben-Levi
But the text here is also rich with meaning if we look at it closely. Notice that here in the genealogy it stops with the name of the patriarch of their tribe, unlike other genealogies it does not go on to say “son of Israel.” The Torah is giving us an insight into the nature of where their heart was, they had already separated themselves from the Nation.
But what do we mean by “separated?” The term “vayikach” means literally the he “took.” But what did Korach take? The text goes on to read, “veDatan va’Aviram benei Eli’av ve’On ben-Pelet benei Re’uvein / with Dathan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Peleth, the offspring of Rueben.” The Targum Onkelos (Aramaic translation) renders “vayikack / took” as “separated.” Rashi further supports this understanding by explaining that in context Korach took them to the side, isolating them from the rest of Am Yisrael (The People of Israel) and privately conspired with them. Only then after they conspired together in private did they approach the body of the elders of Israel. We need to take a good look here and realize that private conspiracy has only one aim, to separate people from one another. It’s a natural principal in this universe, things reproduce after their own kind; dogs give birth to dogs, cats give birth to cats, and divisiveness and separation only births further division and separation!
How ironic it is then that the shoresh (root) of the name Kohath, who was patriarch of the most sacred priesthood, means “to gather together.” In the introductory words of our parsha we see the Torah supporting the outward claim of Korach as a son of Kohath, while at the same time showing the hidden element of his conspiring that invalidates his claim.
Furthermore it appears to me that Korach has gone one step further, he has done the typical act of a shyster in convincing each of the elders that they each are better candidates as well. One should be aware this is a typical act of a conman to build up the ego of each individual, uniting them against a common enemy and yet dividing them against each other in a spirit of competition. For this reason we see that Moses is going to put them to the test, Korach and his mob of 250 are offered a chance to show if they had what it took to fill the shoes of High Priest. He asks them to take fire-pans, or censers, which are used to burn incense and to offer it to Hashem; then let G-d choose for Himself.
Here in the Torah we find some striking examples of the human condition and the workings of the human psyche. Here we see a typical act of a coward in Korach as the ringleader of this madness, in that he has nothing to say when confronted by Moses directly. He has no answer for the basic question:
who is he
that you should have grievance with him?”
| ki talinu alav
Moses attempts to speak with Dathan and Aviram but they also refuse to meet with Moses and say “lo na’aleh / we won’t come!” (v.12) We find that Korach’s co-conspirators to display another loathsome quality of conmen and those manipulated by them, they not only refuse to answer for themselves directly but they try to shovel the blame of their unhappiness upon Moses. They not only blame him for not bringing them into the Promised Land, but twist the words of Hashem and have the vulgarity to describe Egypt as a land flowing with milk and honey. (v.13) The very description Hashem gave them of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) they apply to the land of their captivity. How typical are people in the wrong, in that for all their brazenness they most often refuse to stand up and let their situation be judged in light of their own actions.
If we consider it, we see that at the time of the offering of incense there are 250 fire pans, one for each of the elders. How is that Dathan, Aviram and Korach are not included in this count? I believe the answer is that Dathan and Aviram never intended to seek the priesthood, their aim was all together different in that they sought kingship. I believe as offspring of Reuvein, the first born son of Israel, their contention was that the tribe of Reuvein was entitled kingship. They sadly proved that the traits of their forefather Reuvein were alive and well in them; in Genesis we learned that Reuvien lost the right of first-born and it was given to the sons of Joseph because at the time of Joseph’s abduction Reuvein did not prevent the injustice taking place. Instead Reuvien compromised, in that he suggested instead of killing Joseph they should just capture him, furthermore he stood back as his brother was sold off. So here again we see in his offspring the lack of backbone to deal with situations directly here in the lives of Dathan and Aviram.
I believe that the reason Korach isn’t included in the 250 is that despite his contention that he should be High Priest, he never rose to the occasion when the time came to prove his ability. It appears Korach is conspiring to take the High Priesthood by force, in return for the support of the sons of Ruvein whom he each seem to promise a crown. They are going to lead a revolution and share the power as dictators. This is an ultimate example of back-room politics and corruption!
Furthermore, he not only failed to offer incense here, but also in other cases when he really should have. Unlike Moses and Aaron when the dispute and Hashem’s anger over this row became apparent, again Korach made no attempt to intercede for the people to G-d as they were suffering the fallout.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, explains to us based on the interpretation of Rashi that the judgment that came about, with the earth swallowing Korach, was a symbol that Korach had the desire for greater spiritual status; his spirit desired to be High Priest, however he lack the commitment. What greater commitment is there than to be willing to commit ones life to the point of descending into their grave for your cause? He lacked this commitment and the truth of it overwhelmed him, as symbolized by the earth swallowing and covering over him.
Korach was willing to let the people sacrifice their lives in support of his supposed search for equality, however he truly didn’t desire it in his heart, and this desire is represented by fire. He nor any of the 250 candidates interceded for the people before Hashem, they were willing to die for the cause, but not to live with passion for it and it overwhelmed them, as symbolized by being consumed by a flame from heaven. (v.35)
What is so terribly saddening in the end is that, as is often the case, this terrible display of rebellion cost more to the collaborators than the initial instigator. How so? In Numbers 26:9-11 we have the recounting of this story in a census of the next generation being taken; it reads, “…Dathan and Aviram, the same Dathan and Aviram who were summoned by the assembly, who contended against Moses and Aaron among the assembly of Korach, when they contended against Hashem. Then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korach with the death of the assembly, when the fire consumed two hundred and fifty men – and they became a sign. But the sons of Korach did not die.” The children and household of Dathan and Aviram was swallowed alive by the earth along with them, however the sons of Korach lived on. You will find that the beginning of Book Two of Psalms – which starts with Psalm 42 – being attributed to the sons of Korach.
Korach was so short-sighted, as we see the sons of Korach went on to serve before Hashem but he did not. Furthermore we see in chapter 17 that the fire-pans used for incense were collected together after the death of the assembly of 250 candidates. As the fire-pans had been used in holy service to Hashem they became sacred. The pans were commanded to be hammered down and made into coverings for the Altar of G-d. Though their bearers never ascended to offering at the Altar, the copper covers made out of the fire-pans ascended to the Altar as an eternal reminder. (Numbers 17:3) Let us all learn from their example, that when we do not live in unison with the plans of Hashem for peace sometimes we cut ourselves short; ourselves never seeing the day that our work and dreams mature to greatness.
Be Among the Disciples of Aaron…
What is so tragic to me about this whole story is that the symbol of incense was as symbol of peace. Everyone knows that incense is intended to provide a pleasant aroma. However the Zohar goes on further to explain that the offering of Incense (the Ketoret) was intended to remove impurity from the world and to bring peace among the proverbial 70 nations of the world (the whole world, in other words, all the peoples). Here the very offering of it becomes twisted around by the cynics and self-important.
For all the complaining that Korach and his assembly did against Moses and Aaron, these two leaders of G-d showed their overwhelming love for the Nation of Israel through their conduct. Again, unlike Korach and his conspirators Moses and Aaron interceded for the people at each turn. They continuously humbled themselves by even falling on their faces and begging the people to reconsider the error of their ways. Korach, Dathan and Aviram however were not only unwilling to speak for themselves, they were also unwilling to speak up for the Nation of Israel and showed they had little concern for the outcome of the people as a whole. It was only Moses and Aaron that when faced with the reality of Divine Judgment against the people responded back to G-d with a challenge for justification, in their asking:
“Oh G-d, G-d of the spirit of all flesh,
shall one man sin, and You be angry
with the entire congregation?”
| El Elohei haruchot lechol-basar
| ha’ish echad yecheta
| ve’al kol-ha’edah tiktzof
Even after the tragic deaths of Korach and his assembly the people didn’t waste time attacking Moses and Aaron again. The next morning the people rose up against them and again they plead with them and tried to compel them to not again incite the “anger” of Hashem. Again Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and interceded for the people of Israel. However the people did not listen to Moses and Aaron and a plague broke out among the people, causing the people to drop dead.
In the next chapter we read:
“And Moses said to Aaron:
‘Take your fire-pan
and put on it fire from upon the Altar
and place incense,
and go quickly to the assembly
and make atonement for them!'”
| Vayomer Moshe el-Aharon
| kach et-hamachtah
| veten-aleiha esh me’al hamizbe’ach
| vesim ktoret
| veholech meherah el-ha’edah
| vechaper aleyhem
In verses 12-13 we see a scene that I think is one of the most beautiful events in all of the Torah, we read:
“Aaron took as Moses had said
and ran to the middle of the congregation.
And behold! The plague had begun
among the people.
He placed the incense
and provided atonement for the people.
He stood between the dead and the living,
and the plague was checked.”
| Vayikach Aharon ka’asher diber Moshe
| vayarotz el-toch hakahal
| vehineh hechel
| hanegef ba’am
| vayiten et-haktoret
| vayechaper al-ha’am
| vaya’amod bein-hametim uvein hachayim
| vate’atzar hamagefah
How beautiful it is to me that unlike those who criticized him, Aaron had such genuine love for the people that when faced with a situation of G-d striking them down with a plague he didn’t run away, or hide behind a mob, instead he threw himself into the middle of the situation; and (1) stood as a buffer, used himself as a shield to protect the people; (2) interceded for the people to remedy the needless ruin. He stood between the living and the dead and put the plague in check, that is powerful.
In the commentary for Pirkei Avot in the Artscroll Etz Chaim Siddur it aptly states, “In Talmudic literature Aaron is described as the great peacemaker who went to any ends to make peace between man and his wife and between feuding Jews.” For this reason we read in our tradition;
“ [Rabbi] Hillel said:
Be among the disciples of Aaron,
loving peace and pursuing peace,
and bringing them closer to the Torah. ”
הלל אומר: |
הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן, |
אוהב שלום ורודף שלום , |
אוהב את הבריות |
ומקרבן לתורה. |
Pirkei Avot 1:12