While the story of the rebellion of Korach is well known, the very idea of a rebellion against Moshe seems strange to us. Moshe was surely the greatest leader the Jewish people has ever known. More than that, he was our greatest teacher, prophet, and spiritual leader. Additionally, Moshe was the most modest man to ever live. Adding these characteristics together should produce an extremely attractive package, a leader of unparalleled stature. How was Korach able to convince anyone to join him in a rebellion against such a man? Undoubtedly, Korach was sly and devious; the Midrash stresses his manipulative demagoguery and deception. But how did the movement he spearheaded gain a foothold within the Israelite community?
A number of the steps are clear: Korach gathers the disenfranchised, namely the tribe of Reuven who had lost the rights and privileges and the preferred status and stature of the eldest tribe. The timing is also significant: the people had just been sentenced to wander in the desert for forty years. Although this was not Moshe's doing, there most likely was whispered criticism of Moshe's perceived mismanagement of the spies - murmuring that called Moshe's leadership into question.
However, the seeds of the insurrection may go back even farther, to a most unexpected source: The most important and debilitating attack on Moshe came from his own brother and sister, Aharon and Miriam.
And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. And they said, 'Has God indeed spoken only by Moshe? Has he not spoken also by us?' And God heard it. And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any other man upon the face of the earth. And God spoke suddenly to Moshe, and to Aharon, and to Miriam, 'Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting.' And the three came out. (Bamidbar 12:1-4)
Perhaps this talk against Moshe from such reputable people burst the bubble of Moshe's unparalleled status in the eyes of the people. It is interesting that while Miriam was immediately punished, Aharon apparently escaped that episode unscathed.(1) Ironically, or perhaps in a masterful moment of cynical manipulation, Korach uses this seeming inequity as a weapon: When Korach wages his war against Moshe, he points his accusations at Aharon as the beneficiary of Moshe's nepotism.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik(2) once pointed out a similar dynamic in the relationships between Ya'akov and his children. Where did the sons get the audacity to contemplate killing Yosef, when it was obvious to them that their father would take any harm to Yosef in the most severe manner? The answer is - from Reuven.
There is a strange lacuna in the text describing the sale of Yosef, a gap which may shed light on this claim. The brothers see Yosef from afar and plot his demise:
And when they saw him from afar, even before he came near them, they conspired against him to kill him. And they said to one another, 'Behold, this dreamer comes. Come now, and let us kill him, and throw him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast has devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.' (Bereishit 37:18-20)
Reuven heroically stands up against the others and declares that no blood should be spilled. Instead, he places Yosef in a pit - with the intention to save him soon after, when the time is right:
And Reuven heard it, and he saved him from their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. And Reuven said to them, Shed no blood, but throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him from their hands, to deliver him to his father again. (Bereishit 37:21-22)
His well-laid plan notwithstanding, during the sale of Yosef- Reuven is nowhere to be found. His plan seems to have gone awry, for when he "returns" to the narrative, he expresses shock that Yosef is gone:
And Reuven returned to the pit; and, behold, Yosef was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes. And he returned to his brothers, and said, The child is gone; and I, where shall I go? (Bereishit 37:29-30)
Where was Reuven during this critical gap? He knew that Yosef was in peril, and needed to be saved; why did Reuven "disappear"? Rashi explains that at that time, in those critical moments or hours, Reuven was involved in prayer and repentance for the indiscretion having moved his father's bed.(3)
Rashi's comments regarding Reuven's role in the sale of Yosef refer us back to an earlier, seemingly unrelated episode - an episode that, taken at face value, incriminates Reuven of behavior that was almost too shocking to be understood.
And it came to pass, when Yisrael lived in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Yisrael heard it. Now the sons of Ya'aacob were twelve. (Bereishit 35:22)
The Talmud declares that Reuven was certainly not guilty of the nefarious crime of incest or adultery; he merely moved his father's bed from Bilhah's tent to the tent of his own mother:
R. Shmuel b. Nachman said in R. Yonatan's name: Whoever maintains that Reuven sinned is merely making an error, for it is said, 'Now the sons of Ya'acov were twelve', teaching that they were all equal. Then how do I interpret, 'and he lay with Bilhah his father's concubine'? This teaches that he moved his father's bed, and the Torah imputes [blame] to him as though he had lain with her... He resented his mother's humiliation. Said he, 'If my mother's sister was a rival to my mother, shall the bondmaid of my mother's sister be a rival to my mother?' [Thereupon] he arose and switched the bed. (Shabbat 55b)
All of this seems quite strange; how can moving furniture be paralleled with one of the cardinal sins of Judaism, and what does this have to do with the sale of Yosef? Why would Reuven have chosen the moment of Yosef's sale to repent for that earlier indiscretion? The answer is that had Reuven not committed this act, the other brothers would never have dreamt of selling Yosef. Once the brothers saw that Reuven was able to act in such an impertinent manner toward their father, the reins of awe and respect were loosened, and the brothers' impudence surged. This is evident from the explanation offered by the Midrash for Reuven's disappearance during the sale of Yosef.
"And Reuven returned to the pit". Where had he been? R. Eleazar said: He was taken up with his fasting and sackcloth, and when he became free he went and looked into the pit. Hence it is written, "and Reuven repented."(4) (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 84:19)
Why would Reuven pick this particular moment for his religious awakening? Yosef is in the pit awaiting someone to come and save him. Apparently, at that point, Reuven understood the ramifications of his own actions; his own impertinence led directly to the sale of Yosef. His moving of furniture almost led to murder - one of the cardinal sins of Judaism.(5)
In much the same way, the episode of Aharon and Miriam empowered Korach: their criticism had opened the door that no one else could ever have opened, paving the way for irreverence. In fact, the substance of Aharon and Miriam's criticism of Moshe, and not just the form, served Korach well.
Rashi, based on the Midrash Tanchuma, explains the sin of Miriam. The Torah had said "And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman." According to Rashi, the problem was not the marriage, but Moshe's decision to separate himself from his wife. In the opinion of Miriam and Aharon, this was undue, excessive asceticism;(6) after all, God had spoken to them as well and had never made such demands. This separation is arguably one of the decisions Moshe had taken on his own:
P>This was one of the three things which Moshe did of his own accord, but which received the full approval of God. He separated himself from his wife, because- said R. Shimon ben Yochai - Moshe thus reasoned to himself: ' If in connection with Mount Sinai, which was hallowed only for the occasion [of Revelation], we were told: 'Come not near a woman' (ib. 19:15), then how much more must I, to whom He speaks at all times, separate myself from my wife?' R. Akiva said: [No!] it was God Himself who told him [to separate himself from his wife], (Midrash Rabbah - Sh'mot 46:3)
Whether God had actually told Moshe to separate from his wife or merely agreed ex post facto, it is clear that Aharon and Miriam had not known that Moshe's actions had God's blessing or sanction. This opened the door for Korach's insidious claim that Moshe was "making things up" and overstepping the Divine mandate. Korach would never have been able to make such a claim had Aharon and Miriam not said as much before him.
It was the same with Korach. He contended with Moshe, and said that the latter had invented all these things from his own mind and on his own initiative. (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 18:12)
Interestingly, all three decisions mentioned in the Talmud as independent decisions by Moshe may be connected to the insurrection and demagoguery of Korach:
For it was taught, Three things did Moshe do of his own understanding, and the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval: he added one day of his own understanding, he separated himself from his wife, and he broke the Tablets. 'He added one day of his own understanding': what [verse] did he interpret? Today and tomorrow: 'today' [must be] like 'tomorrow: just as tomorrow includes the [previous] night, so 'today' [must] include the [previous] night, but the night of today has already passed! Hence it must be two days exclusive of today. And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave his approval? - Since the Shechinah did not rest [upon Mount Sinai] until the morning of the Sabbath. And 'he separated himself from his wife': What did he interpret? He applied an a minori argument to himself, reasoning: If the Israelites, with whom the Shechinah spoke only on one occasion and He appointed them a time [thereof], yet the Torah said, 'Be ready for the third day: come not near a woman': I, with whom the Shechinah speaks at all times and does not appoint me a [definite] time, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave his approval? Because it is written, 'Go say to them, Return to your tents', which is followed by, 'But as for you, stand here by me'. There are some who quote, 'with him [sc. Moshe] will I speak mouth to mouth'. 'He broke the Tablets': how did he learn [this]? He argued: If the Passover sacrifice, which is but one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts, yet the Torah said, there shall no alien eat thereof: here is the whole Torah, and the Israelites are apostates, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval? Because it is said, 'which you broke', and Resh Lakish interpreted this: 'All strength to you that you broke them'. (Talmud - Shabbat 87a)
Korach's initial claim was that the "entire people are holy":
You take too much upon you, being that all of the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of God? (Bamidbar 16:3)
What is the nature of this "holiness"? The Midrash takes Korach's words as a reference to the theophony at Sinai:
And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon [Bamidbar 16:3]. Korach said to them: all the congregation are holy, every one of them (ib.) and they have all heard at Sinai the commandment: I am the Almighty your God (Shmot 20:2); Wherefore, then, do you lift yourselves above the assembly of God? (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 18:6)
This argument echoes Miriam's claim: "We too are prophets", Moshe is not the only one to have been privileged to hear the Divine Word. Korach takes up the same claim, but uses it on a less personal level: "You, Moshe, are not the only prophet - we all experienced God at Sinai."
On the other hand, perhaps there is a deeper, more cynical sentiment being articulated. As we saw, the substance of Miriam's slander was Moshe's separation from his wife. In preparation for Sinai, Moshe had instructed all of Israel to practice abstinence. We know that the phrase "holiness" is often a catchword or a synonym for 'separateness', sepration, strict boundaries of ritual purity.(7) Perhaps Korach is making reference to the other action Moshe took on his own initiative: calling on the entire community to practice abstinence for an extra day before receiving the Torah. Reminding Moshe that "all the congregation is holy," is in fact a claim that the congregation has been coerced unnecessarily into abstinence which God did not require - Korach's proof of the more general charge that Moshe had played "fast and loose" with the Divine decree.
The third action Moshe is said to have initiated was the breaking of the Tablets when he descended from the mountain and saw the Golden Calf. Perhaps more than anything else, the Golden Calf symbolizes Korach's argument. His stated goal was to usurp the High Priesthood, a position he felt he deserved more than Aharon. One can imagine his argument: If Aharon was guilty of complicity - at the very least - in the Golden Calf episode, why is he worthy to be Kohen Gadol? Alternatively, if Aharon was innocent, why did Moshe break the Tablets, especially when we recall that the tribe of Levi, Korach's tribe, did not sin with the Golden Calf?
There is another way to solve this conundrum: Moshe's action may be understood in terms of the rules of marriage. The relationship between the People of Israel and God is likened to that of bride and groom, and Mount Sinai to the marriage ceremony. Standing at Mount Sinai and declaring "We will listen we will obey" was analogous to accepting vows of matrimony. The sin of the Golden Calf, then, is analogous to adultery.
So what did Moshe do? He took the Tablets from the hands of God in order to appease His wrath. It can be compared to a king who sent a marriage-broker to betroth a wife for him, but while the broker was on his way, the woman corrupted herself with another man. What did the broker, who was entirely innocent, do? He took the marriage document which the prince had given him to betroth her with, and tore it, saying: 'It is better that she be judged as an unmarried woman than as one married.' This is what Moshe did; when Israel perpetrated that act, he took the Tablets and shattered them, as if to imply that had Israel foreseen the punishment awaiting them, they would not have thus sinned. (Midrash Rabbah Sh'mot 43:1)
Moshe hoped to extricate the Jews from their precarious position, and broke the Tablets, which would be analogous to the wedding band. If the band is broken before it is placed on the bride's finger, if the Tablets of Testimony are broken before they are delivered into the possession of the Jewish People, the Jews are still "unwed," and therefore technically innocent of infidelity. They are far less accountable for their sin; their punishment will be far less stringent. Korach, on the other hand, argues that Moshe had no right to act as he did; the entire congregation is holy - and married to God. How dare Moshe break the tablets on his own authority and go against the Will of God!(8)
The marriage theme continues through the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf: Moshe makes the people drink water that is mixed with the dust of the Golden Calf, much as a woman suspected of infidelity is given bitter waters mixed with the dust of the Mishkan to prove her innocence:
And he took the calf which they had made, and burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink of it. (Sh'mot 32:20)
The theme of marriage and fidelity of the nation of Israel is intertwined with an even more bizarre and shocking claim made by Korach:
And when Moshe heard it, he fell upon his face. What news did he hear? - R. Shmuel b. Nahmani said in R. Yonatan's name: That he was suspected of [adultery with] married women, as it is written, 'They were jealous of Moshe in the camp,' [Tehilim106:16] which teaches that every person warned his wife on Moshe's account, as it is written: "And Moshe took the tent, and pitched it outside the camp [Sh'mot 33:7]. (Sanhedrin 110a)
It seems difficult to fathom that the people could have suspected Moshe of so heinous a crime, but the tradition is clear: The verse that tells us that Moshe moved his tent outside the camp is found immediately after the Golden Calf episode. We know that the women did not take part in this sin; they did not heed the men, and remained loyal to God and to Moshe:
P>In that generation the women built up the fences which the men broke down. Thus you find that Aharon told them: Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives [Shmot 32: 2], but the women refused and checked their husbands; as is proved by the fact that it says, "And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears" (ib. 3). The women did not participate with the men in making the Calf. (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 21:10) (9)
This had actually been part of Aharon's strategy: He knew that the women would not listen to their husbands, that they would remain loyal.(10) The fact that the women were more dedicated to Moshe and God than to their own husbands certainly caused strife in the camp. Korach's claim that Moshe had unnatural control over the women was articulated as "suspicion" vis a vis Moshe:(11) The men had warned their wives against taking sides with Moshe, of preferring Moshe to their own husbands.
Against this backdrop, another bit of intrigue in the parsha is explained: The verses that describe the beginning of the rebellion enumerate several members of Korach's party:
Now Korah, the son of Yizhar, the son of Kehath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuven, took men. And they rose up before Moshe, with certain of the People of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown. (Bamidbar 16:1-2)
Of these leaders, one is mentioned only in this first verse and never mentioned again in the Torah: On the son of Pelet. While the text returns to the other leaders and their respective ignominious fates, the text tells us nothing about On's fate. The Talmud and Midrash relate a tradition that On's wife saved him from Korach's manipulative counsel:
Rav said: On, the son of Pelet, was saved by his wife. Said she to him, 'What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moshe] remains master or the other [Korah] becomes master, you are but a disciple.' He replied, 'But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.' She said, 'I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, "seeing all the congregation are holy, everyone of them." She proceeded, 'Sit here, and I will save you.' She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down within [the tent]. Then she sat down at the door and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korah's wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korah], 'See what Moshe has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother's sons he has made the vice High Priests. If terumah is brought, he decrees, 'Let it be for the priest'; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, 'Give one tenth to the priest'. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.' ... Thus it is written, "Every wise woman builds her house" - this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; "but the foolish plucks it down with her hands" - to Korah's wife. (Sanhedrin 109b-110a) (See Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 18:20)
On was saved by his wife's heroism, while the wickedness of Korach's wife led him to the abyss.(12) While Korach's wife egged him on, nurturing his anger from a perceived slight, On's wife employed the same logic as Korach, but in a reverse: The entire congregation is indeed holy, she says, yet the conclusion is not that they therefore have a right to lead. Instead, she concludes that every member of the congregation will adhere strictly to the laws of modesty and purity; no member of such a holy congregation would enter a house where a woman's hair is uncovered.
Why did she choose this particular expression of holiness? Uncovering her hair may also have been related to the ritual of sotah, the woman suspected of adultery whose hair is uncovered as part of the trial. Perhaps by uncovering her hair in the doorway, On's wife was making a statement: her home, her community, and she herself are untainted. She is innocent,(13) the community is indeed holy,(14) and Moshe is innocent as well. They have passed the test.
The tragedy of the Korach episode is how one man with a grudge, encouraged by one woman, could lead an entire community to death and despair. Additionally, it is frightening how a "minor" comment by Miriam and Aharon could be escalated into a full-scale rebellion. When speaking about a man like Moshe, extreme caution must be exercised, for the slightest disrespect could have severe implications. In fact, when speaking about any person we should use the utmost care and exercise good judgment - for sometimes flippant statements, seemingly inconsequential actions or insignificant comments, can have severe and far-reaching implications.(15)
The anonymous heroine of the episode is the wife of On who took her husband's destiny in her own hands, and forced him back to Moshe's side,(16) in the tradition of all the women who refused to sin throughout the years in Egypt, in the desert(17) - and ever since. They preserved their families and the community through their dedication to God, Moshe and Torah - very much unlike Korach.
1. See Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 6:11, where Aharon's guilt is mentioned.
2. See the comments of the Beis Halevi on Bereishit 37:29. This may be the source of the Rov's teaching.
3. Rashi gives two explanations: first, that Reuven in order to go and care for his father. Given the logistical impossibility of travelling from Dotan to Hebron and back, in order to rescue Yosef from the pit, Rashi offers this second interpretation: Reuven was immersed in fasting and prayer.
4. A play on the word vayashav, "returned,"the same word used to describe repentence.
5. According to the Zohar, Reuven did not know about the sale. Zohar Bereishit 185b: 'And Reuven returned to the pit; and, behold, Yosef was not in the pit; and he tore his clothes. And he returned to his brothers, and said, The child is gone; and I, where shall I go?' For even Reuven did not know that Yosef had been sold. As has already been said, the brothers associated the Shekinah with them in the oath of secrecy..."
6. The Midrash connects her comments with the news that Eldad and Meidad were prophesying in the camp. Miraim overheard Zippporah lament the future of the wives who would now suffer the fate of separation that Zipporah herself has experienced.
7. See Rashi, Vayikra 19:2.
8. Rav Yonatan Eybeshitz in his Tiferet Yonaton, Bamidabar 16:4, makes a similar observation.
9. According to the Midrash in Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, the reward of the women was that they would not work on Rosh Chodesh.
10. Zohar 2:192a: "And Aharon said to them, Break off the golden earrings." (Shmot 32: 2). Did they have no other gold? Aharon's idea, however, was that while they were arguing with their wives and children, time would be gained and Moshe might return before harm was done."
11. See Margaliyot Hayam, Sanhedrin 110a note 5.
12. The Midrash blames Korach's wife for instigating his rebellion. Midrash Rabbah 18:4 "Now Korach... took" implies that he took his cloak and went to take counsel with his wife." Also see Midrash Rabbah 18:15.
13. It is also noteworthy that she gets On drunk, which is also related to the Sotah. See my notes on Parshat Naso.
14. In fact, the passage that immediately follows in the Talmud is the one in which the people accuse Moshe of indiscretion with married women.
15. According to the Zohar, Moshe did not make any decisions independently: But, in fact, there is no word in the Torah which Moshe spoke on his own authority. Hence it says, "Moshe spoke" with his own voice, "and God answered him with that mighty Voice", confirming what he said. (Zohar, Vayikra Page 7a).
16. According to the Midrash, On spends the rest of his life repenting: Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar, 18:20, "And On, the son of Pelet"; Why was he called by the name of On? Because he spent all the rest of his days in mourning. Why "the son of Pelet"? Because he was a son for whom miracles (pela'ot) were wrought.
17. See Midrash Rabbah Devarim 21:10, for details of many episodes in the desert in which the women remained steadfast to God, Moshe and Torah.