Korach: You Say You Want a Revolution

Posted on June 23, 2023 by Jay Lavroff

In December 2019 I had the good fortune to attend, with many of my Temple Beth-El colleagues, the URJ Biennial in Chicago. One of the sessions I participated in was led by Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, then the newly appointed president of Hebrew Union College. Dr. Rehfeld’s topic was the connection between Judaism and the music of the Beatles. I was intrigued and anxious to hear what he would tell us, especially considering that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are not Jewish. The lecture was brilliant; a great learning experience that was full of interesting and insightful observations as well as humor and fun. Although a lifelong fan of the Fab Four, I had never made the kinds of connections that Dr. Rehfeld drew. It changed the way I think about their music, which reflects so many things in our lives. And so it was while I prepared a drash about this week’s Torah portion, Korach. I simply could not separate the attempt to overthrow Moses from John Lennon rocking out the stinging lyrics of Revolution from the White Album.

Many of us are familiar with the insurrection led by the central character of this parsha, which bears his name. Korach leads his deputies Dathan and Abiram, along with of 250 heads of the community, to confront Moses in an open and obvious threat to his authority. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observed that “the rebellion of Korach that dominates this parsha was the most devastating challenge to Moses’ leadership.” The timing of this event does not appear to be a coincidence. Unrest among the Israelites has been growing. Two weeks ago we read about complaints for having only manna to eat, and grumbling that life was better while slaves in Egypt. Last week we learned that ten of the twelve spies dispatched to scout the land of Canaan gave a thoroughly negative report about the likelihood of occupying the land that God had promised. For this, God imposed the extremely harsh punishment that all those who were freed from bondage, save the descendants of Joshua and Caleb, would die in the desert and never enter the promised land. The people’s state of mind is not good, creating a condition ripe for a villain to arise and attempt a coup. As the Rambam pointed out, a rebellion could only have happened after the sin of the spies and the subsequent condemnation of the generation who left Egypt, told that they would not live to enter the land.

Enter Korach.

We all want to change the world…

Political scientists tell us that rebellion and revolution are two different things. The principal difference is that rebellion is an uprising against authority, while revolution is a complete overthrow of the existing power structure. The primary objective of a rebellion is to address specific grievances and bring about change within the existing framework, while the goal of a revolution is to fundamentally alter the existing political, social, and economic systems of a society.

You tell me it’s the institution…

As the parsha opens, Korach, Dathan and Abiram, along with 250 “chieftains of the community,” have risen up against Moses and Aaron. Torah commentators say that the composition of the group is no accident, as Korach has specifically gathered those who have a complaint against Moses: Dathan and Abiram, who want to return to Egypt; the firstborn, who lost their special privileges to the House of Levi; and Korach himself, who demands the High Priesthood. Korach has assembled an army of malcontents for the express purpose of removing the existing leadership structure and installing one of their own. Korach tells Moses that he and Aaron have “gone too far,” having wrongly placed themselves above all others and also designating some members of the community as holy, while others are not. Korach and his followers will change this. Revolution indeed.

You say you got a real solution, Well, you know, We’d all love to see the plan…

In response to this threat, Moses reacts with humility. He falls to the ground in deference to those who are confronting him, and proposes that the matter be settled by all going to the tabernacle to offer incense in their fire pans, and then have God determine who the leaders are. Korach, Dathan and Abiram reject this suggestion. Yet they have no alternative plan of their own. Rather, it seems they wish simply to physically remove Moses and Aaron from office. What Korach has in mind after that is known only to him. Perhaps there is no plan at all beyond seizing power. Not a good idea while wandering in the middle of the desert.

But if you want money for people with minds that hate, All I can tell you is brother you have to wait…

The next day Korach escalates the dispute. He gathers the whole community against Moses and Aaron, intent on taking control. But God intervenes. God’s presence appears and God tells Moses and Aaron to stand back in order that God may annihilate the entire community right there. Moses and Aaron, demonstrating true leadership, plead with God to not punish the whole community for the sins of one member. God relents, and tells Moses to instruct the people to move away from the tents of Korach, Dathan and Abiram in order that they not be punished for the wrongdoings of the leaders of the hateful and selfish uprising. No sooner does Moses issue his warning than the earth opens up and swallows the chief rebels. God then sends forth a fire that consumes the 250 followers of Korach who confronted Moses in menacing fashion. The rest of the community flees in horror. God has squelched the insurrection in the most dramatic way possible, and also offers a reminder that those not authorized by God shall not presume to put themselves in a leadership position, lest they suffer the same fate as Korach and his followers.

And yet incredibly, the complaints of the people continued. They ended only when Aaron’s rod budded, blossomed, and brought forth almonds. God tells Moses that the blossoming of Aaron’s staff is a symbol and a lesson to rebels, “so that their mutterings against Me may cease.” In other words, have faith, trust in God to make good on God’s promises, and should a conflict arise, seek only peaceful resolution.

Which leaves us with the best possible message: “Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright.”

Shabbat shalom,

Jay Lavroff