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Korach(Numbers 16-18)


In the aftermath of the episode of the spies, this week's Torah portion begins with a direct full-scale rebellion against Moses, Aaron, and God.

The spies' report caused the masses to reevaluate the wisdom of continued adherence to Moses as leader. Korach took advantage of this situation to strike.

Who was Korach, the rebel? What motivated him? What was his agenda?

Who was Korach? What motivated him? What was his agenda? A review of the episode will help understand these issues.

First, let us consider the strategy which Korach uses. Korach's initial move was to galvanize the various segments of the population who felt disenfranchised. This is the reason why the other complainants were of the tribe of Reuben. If anyone felt that their position had been compromised, it must have been Reuben. After all, they were the first born of Jacob. According to the sages, the kingship and the rights of Kohanim, "priests" and the double portion should have been all within their lot.

These privileges were stripped away by Jacob and handed over to Judah, Levi and Joseph respectively. Therefore in his initial move he manipulates the leaders of Reuben to join his rebellion. Next we see the argument which he uses:

"You take too much upon yourselves, for all the community is holy, and God is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the community of God? (Numbers 15:3)

Rashi's comments on their complaint is quite instructive:

You have taken too much greatness for yourselves. All heard the sounds at Sinai that emanated from heaven. If you took the kingship for yourself, you did not need to give your brothers the priesthood ..." (Rashi 15:3)

What is Korach trying to accomplish?


* * *



On the one hand he correctly points out the entire nation stood at Sinai, this provide the basis for the claim that leadership can belong to anyone of the people. While this argument is certainly popular -- and perhaps will give him even more support, especially among the common folk -- this can lead to anarchy, for ultimately his argument leads to the conclusion that there should not be a need for any leadership. No one person should be placed on a pedestal over other people. Perhaps leadership should be based on rotation. A nation of comrades -- all for one and one for all. Despite the grand message, Rashi indicates that Korach himself does not believe the words which leave his lips, for in the next breath he says:

Why do you raise yourselves above the community of God? [He means:] If you took the kingship for yourself, you did not need to give your brother the priesthood ..." (Rashi 15:3)

The text itself is unclear as to whom Korach attacks, is it Moses or Aaron?

Here Korach slyly seems to be saying, "We can make this whole thing go away if you agree to share some of the wealth." Korach wants power. He found what he believed to be an expedient way to accomplish his goals. Attack Aaron. Aaron is the weak link, after all Aaron alone was guilty in the Golden Calf tragedy. Why should he be rewarded and become the High Priest? Why not find a more sympathetic leader to serve in this role? Namely Korach.

In reality, Korach's was an attack against Moses and indeed against God as well.

In reality this is an attack against Moses and indeed against God as well. It is God and not Moses who gives out appointments. Perhaps by stressing that all the nation stood at Sinai, Korach is rejecting Moses -- who indeed is different from the nation, for he did not merely stand at Sinai, he ascended the Mountain and brought back the torah with him.

It would seem that Korach does not wage a direct attack against Moses, perhaps such an attack did not have a chance to succeed. However, had Moses agreed to this blackmail of Korach, then Moses' position would have been irreparably damaged, which would have paved the way for his removal as well.

What was it which corrupted Korach, and caused this total rejection?


* * *



The Midrashic and Kabbalistic traditions abound with suggestions which explain the failure of Korach.

One explanation describes Korach as a wealthy man, (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 27d). It is not uncommon for men of great wealth to desire power as well. Other sources (Sefer Etzot Yesharot in the name of Chaz"l) indicate that Korach felt humiliated by Moses for shaving his head (while preparing Korach for his service as Levite). This would also suggest an origin for the name Korach, which means bald.

Earlier (see Parshat Breishit), I cited the opinion of the Ari who makes an association between Korach and Cain, alluding to the blind self-destructive jealousy which both exhibited.

And in a sense this first "argument" between Cain and Abel, sets the spiritual stage for the most famous of arguments in the Torah, the argument between Korach and the establishment.

I noted in that discussion the linguistic parallel of the ground "opening its mouth"(Genesis 4:11) to swallow the blood of Abel and the ground swallows Korach and his men (see Deut. 11:6). While this parallel needs to be studied and considered, there are other aspects of Korach which are also worthwhile to study.

We have seen elements of vanity, megalomania, arrogance and self-delusion in Korach's personality.

We have seen elements of vanity, megalomania, arrogance and self-delusion in Korach's personality, we have also seen demagoguery, and manipulation in his arguments. Nonetheless a question similar to the one posed in Parshat Shlach appears. Just as the spies were great leaders, so was Korach, he was not a marginal character. After all, he was the one responsible for carrying the Ark:

Our Sages said: "Korach was exceedingly wise, and he was among the carriers of the Ark." (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3)

What was it then which brought this man astray, and allowed all of these negative characteristics to become manifest?


* * *



Perhaps we can answer this question by noting a peculiarity about Korach. Despite his ability to gather support from various sections of the population, in his own home he was unsuccessful. The Torah reports in the next census:

And the sons of Korach did not die. (Numbers 26:11)

Apparently, the sons of Korach did not follow their father, nor his teachings. They carried the Ark with dignity. Psalms 42,44-49,84-85,87-88 are all attributed to the descendent of Korach. The Midrash teaches that one of the most famous prophets, Samuel, was also a descendent:

He (Korach) should not say: being that Samuel is destined to descend from me I shall be saved. (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15)

Perhaps Korach believed that he was superior to Moses, after all who were Moses' descendants? The Torah and Midrash do not speak much about Moses' progeny. Korach on the other hand, perhaps thought himself worthy to lead now, because of his descendants who would emerge in the future.

The sons of Korach were surely superior individuals as evidenced by their refusal to follow their father.

Furthermore, as noted above, the sons of Korach were surely superior individuals as evidenced by their refusal to follow their father, and by being content in their holy mission of carrying the Ark.

Korach must have known of their greatness, but in his twisted way, he transformed their saintliness into a justification to rebel. His children, of course, withstood the arguments of their father and remained dedicated to Moses, Aaron and God. This insight may allow us to appreciate the argument which Korach used:

'For all the community is holy and God is in their midst.'

This is a true statement. Rashi suggested that he was referring to the moment when the entire community stood at Sinai. Rav Tzaddok HaKohen from Lublin suggested a different understanding of Rashi. While Rashi is pointing to the past, Rav Tzaddok understands that this is a reference to the future. The Jews are truly a holy nation, and God is among us, but the holiness of the people and the manifestation of God in the community will grow exponentially when the Jews accomplish their collective mission. When Korach speaks of Mount Sinai and revelation, he sees the community in idyllic terms. For Korach the future is now -- God is among all of us.

But his conclusion also had the following implication -- if the future shall be considered, then his descendants are clearly more significant than those of Moses. It is his descendants who will carry the Ark, be the messengers and prophets of God. It is therefore appropriate for him, not Moses or Aaron to lead.

Of course this mistake was tragic. Instead of glory, Korach found despair and enmity.


* * *



Ironically, Samuel, a descendent of Korach, supports the leadership in his generation. He is directly responsible for the anointing of the first two kings of Israel. But he does not try to usurp kingship and attain power for himself, rather he is a faithful servant of God.

Saul, the first king, is anointed by Samuel. It is Saul's sins which will cause him to lose his throne. The Davidic dynasty is begun with the anointing of David by Samuel. The Hafatorah which we read has many allusions to our Torah portion, but the primary one seems to be the association between Samuel and Korach, and the stark difference in their attitudes and behavior.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked the question: "Where is God?" He responded: "Wherever we allow Him to be."

Korach's error was the belief that leadership is the result of intellect, wealth and power. The Jewish idea of leadership is taking responsibility, and to effectively be a agent of God. Samuel understood that. Korach did not.

Korach claimed that God is among all the people. He was of course correct.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked the question: "Where is God?" He responded: "Wherever we allow Him to be."

God's presence is a question of man's spirit, not God's existence. The sons of Korach also understood this, in one of the most powerful prayers in the Psalms they call out:

To the chief musician, an instruction, for the sons of Korach: As the hart pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my bread day and night, while they say to me all day where is thy God? (Psalm 42)

In this profound passage we understand why Korach had reason to be proud, but his descendants were quite different from him. They knew God was among them, they searched and longed to feel and experience God to greater and greater degrees.

They were honored to sing in the Temple. Perhaps they were not the stars of the show -- because after all, that role was reserved for the High Priest -- but they didn't mind. They were ecstatic with their supporting role, singing out powerful words evoking moving images which joined together with stirring melodies.

Their words, which are the positive legacy of Korach, inspire us to this very day. Unlike Korach who insisted that God is among all of us, his descendants sang songs describing how man must desire God, search for God, and be consumed with love of God.

As the hart pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?

May 24, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Yehudith Shraga, June 6, 2013 2:38 AM

There is on end of the Wisdom of those studing Torah

Thank you, Rav Kahn for your ability to bring out the endless messages of Torah, there seems no end one may learn and find in one Parsha only. All three articles on Parshat Korach presented by you on this site speak about different aspects of the spiritual level called Korach and all your articles give so many different thought and perceptions to think over.

Thank you for sharing, educating the readers and helping their understanding of the inner personal messages of Torah for each of us for every day.

(2) Doreen, June 25, 2011 1:17 AM

Thank you Rabbi for this beautiful teaching. I always enjoy reading those powerful Psalms you quoted. It is just now that I have been made aware of the connections between Samuel and the Korahites. I eagerly look forward each week for your commentaries because I know that I will learn something new. Thanks

(1) Anonymous, June 28, 2008 3:48 PM

What a wonderful dvar Torah! I was not familiar with the idea that Samuel was descended from Korach and wonder where the Rabbis got that from. What I most like is the complexity, also found in the story of Cain and Abel. This is not simply a bad man and he left both good and bad memorials behind him. Thank you for much food for thought.

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