Lessons from Korach

Posted on July 1, 2022 by Ed Malberg

In last week’s Sedrah, Shelach Lecha, the people heeded the report of ten of the scouts sent out by Moses and refused to follow Moses’s directions to begin the conquest of the Promised Land. Amid various murmurings, some even sought a chieftain to take them back to Egypt. In today’s parshah, Korach, a Great Mutiny against the leadership of God and God’s appointed leaders Moses and Aaron unfolds. Careful analysis by biblical scholars suggests that at least two revolts are apparent, one focused on the civic leadership of the people and another directed at the Levitical hierarchy.

Dathan and Abiram are from the tribe of Reuben, descendants of Jacob’s first born. They chafe under the leadership of the Levite Moses, hoping for the recovery of the Reubenite birthright. They refuse to recognize Moses’ authority and meet with him. Moses bridles at their arrogance. History is replete with recapitulations of that same theme. It has a long pedigree even in the United States. For example, the party of Jefferson accused Washington and Adams of being “partial to the opulent and monarchial” while the Federalists responded that their opponents comprised a “horrible sink of treason and chaos.” And I’ve selected milder epithets. Even the leadership skills of Abraham Lincoln were denigrated by contemporaries. Isaac Mayer Weiss, a founder of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Hebrew Union College (HUC), once criticized Lincoln for “his thousand and one demonstrations of imbecility.”

Korach’s challenge is more nuanced. A Levite like Moses, he wants to know, loudly, why any one tribe should be elevated when all the people are holy? Why within that hierarchy has the high priesthood been reserved for Aaron and Aaron’s descendants and given special authority to determine the holy and the ordinary? Pushing back hard, Moses impugned his challenger’s motives, suggesting that what Korach really wanted was more power. Korach sought the authority and privilege of the high priest, not the elevation of all the people.

In the Biblical text of Korach, and in much of Jewish interpretative tradition, Korach is a jealous demagogue, stirring up rebellion against Moses and Aaron (and God) in the desert. Having challenged the leadership, Korach agrees to a “Great Israelite Bake Off:” Moses and Aaron will offer incense in their pans and Korach and his followers will offer theirs. God will show the chosen leader by accepting one or the other. Unsuprisingly, Moses wins; Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth while Dathan, Abiram and their minions are consumed by fire. A plague breaks out among the people, a plague that Aaron bravely intervenes to stop, thereby demonstrating the virtue expected of the high priest.

Yet for all the supernatural events of the episode, Korach’s line is NOT ended. A few of the Psalms are attributed to his descendants. Rather this parashah emphasizes the wisdom of the Tradition: We read in Leviticus 19:17 – “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin, but incur no guilt on their account.”

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides suggests a process: “it is essential that rebuke be administered in private; a person shall speak to the offender calmly, employing soft language, telling them the only reason they speak of the matter is to save them for their own good, to bring them toward a life in the world to come. Additionally, when giving rebuke, it is forbidden to put a fellow Israelite to shame, needless to say, publicly.”

Korach didn’t want to rebuke Moses. He didn’t want Moses to change his leadership style to be more collaborative or collegial. Korach’s intent was to shame Moses publicly. He wanted to take him down so that he could replace Moses and lead the people. It is for that arrogance and ambition that Korach was rightfully punished.

It is so easy to move from rebuke to shaming, especially with so much wrong in the world around us. We can rise up against another human being with a withering comment or too-pointed tweet. And all too often, recipients respond with even greater fury. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have an obligation to rebuke. It just means we have to work a little harder at it. There are times, when like the opening words of the parashah, we should take hold of ourselves, rise up and combine with others in the face of injustice. But when we rise up, let’s make sure we are rising toward something instead of against some one.

Maybe then we will achieve what Korach never could.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ed Malberg
Guest Darshan