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Korach | Korach's Rebellion

In memory of Rebbetzin Rebecca Singer z"l,  wife of Rabbi Joseph Singer z"l, daughter of Rabbi Chaim Heller z"l,  upon her yahrzeit, 27 Sivan,  by her daughter Vivian Singer

Summarized by Eitan Sivan
Translated by David Strauss 

Introduction: The Generation of the Wilderness

Parashat Korach opens with the beginning of the rebellion of Korach and his company:

Now Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliyav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuven, took [men]; and they rose up before Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown. (Bamidbar 16:1-2)

It is evident from this account that we are not dealing here with a cohesive group, but rather with three different factions that complain about Moshe and Aharon and their control over the people:

1. Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the eldest of the current generation of Levites, who resents the fact that he was not given the priesthood and was instead left at the level of the Levites.

2. On, Datan, and Aviram, members of the tribe of Reuven, which had been presumed at the outset to be the natural leader of the twelve tribes.

3. Two hundred and fifty men from among the princes of the congregation, the majority of whom, according to Rashi (Bamidbar 16:1, s.v. Datan ve-Aviram), were from the tribe of Reuven. They too sought to take part in the leadership of the people, for two good reasons – they themselves were important people, and they also came from the tribe which was perceived as meriting senior status, the tribe of Reuven.

This small group, which consisted of these three factions and essentially contained different claims and beliefs, managed to stir up a large part of the people to become part of Korach's company. The common goal of all the factions was first and foremost to reject the hierarchy and the idea of holiness; their goal was to transform the entire nation to “holy.” It would appear that they represent a sort of distorted form of the ideal described by the Rambam at the end of Hilkhot Shemita:

Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be his portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus David declared (Tehilim 16:5): "God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup; You support my lot." (Rambam, Hilkhot Shemita ve-Yovel 13:13)

Something of this nature may have been their goal – but a mass rebellion against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, and against the hierarchy of holiness, was a loss that could have been predicted from the outset, and that left many casualties in its wake.

The Motives for the Rebellion

The rebellion in Parashat Korach brings to mind many of the rebellions that have taken place throughout history. A small group with a certain ideology manages to stir up a large group to support it; sometimes the rebellion succeeds and things change, and sometimes the rebellion fails and the rebels suffer a severe defeat. The dynamics of the progression of the rebellion are clear, but what is at the root of the group's thinking?

What drives a particular individual to get up, to put his life on the line and enable that belief to rebel against existing institutions, to take a significant chunk of his life – at times, in an absolutely altruistic manner – while he destroys himself?

It seems that there are a number of reasons that may move a person to rebel. First and foremost, this seems to be due to forces inherent in a person. Every person has inner potential to act and change, and the more aware he is of his abilities and of his potential influence on the world – if he would only act – the greater his desire to actualize his powers and bring them to fruition. Such powers are embedded within every living creature, as the Torah states at the end of the account of the act of creation: "That God created to do" (Bereishit 2:3).

Furthermore, these creative forces seem to be particularly strong among humans in comparison to other creatures, because man was created in the image of God. Man "inherited" some of the traits of the Almighty by virtue of having been created in His image, and, according to the Zohar, God, as it were, gave of Himself to man. God, who creates worlds and destroys them (as in Bereishit Rabba 3 and other places), gave man something of the desire to act and to repair the world, to bring about change and to rebel against things he believes are wrong: "And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" (Bereishit 1:26).

Another possible motive, which also seems to be essential and significant for our discussion, relates to the points of contact a person has with other people. It is known that wherever there is society and community, there is technological development. Man's desire to develop stems from the competition within society, and with every interface that one person has with another, there is progress in the world – as is explained in tractate Ta'anit: "Rabbi Chanina said: Much have I learned from my teachers, and more from my colleagues than from my teachers, and most of all from my students" (Ta'anit 7a).

A third possible motive for the desire to rebel and influence – which also allows for one to hear criticism – lies in a person's immediate surroundings: his family. A person's friends are not always interested only in his well-being, and they are not always ready to be honest with him about the ramifications of his actions and to criticize them. His family, however, is concerned about his well-being at any price, even in cases where he is not happy to hear from them and their criticism is liable to hurt him – and precisely for that reason, it falls upon him to listen to them.

An excellent example of the importance of consulting with one's family can be learned from Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. After Rabban Gamliel was removed from the position, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya received a proposal from the Sages that he serve as the Nasi. But before he announced his decision, he made it clear to them that he would first consult with his wife:

They went and said to him: Will your honor consent to become head of the Academy? He replied: I will go and consult the members of my family. He went and consulted his wife. (Berakhot 28a)

A family's concern for a person's well-being, and the desire to benefit all members of the household, can push a person to act in order to improve the world in which they all live.

However, it is important to note that in addition to these three forces, there is a fourth motive for rebellion: A person has a destructive force that sometimes leads him to rebel – his desire for greatness and his ego. A person's desire to be known and loved is liable at times to lead him to dark places. There is always a possibility that instead of a person promoting an idea he believes in, he will use the idea to promote himself. Therefore, a person must be careful every time he takes action, to ensure that he is in control of his baser inclinations and not the other way around.

Korach and Moshe

Let us move on from the motives for rebellion, to the rebellion itself the two completely opposite sides involved.

On one side stand Moshe and Aharon, the holy leaders of the people, who are moved to act by their mission and faith. Evidence for this can be found in Parashat Behaalotekha, which we read a few weeks ago, where an account is given of Moshe's extraordinary humility: "Now the man Moshe was very humble, more than anyone upon the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 12:3). Aharon is also famous for his righteousness, and it is well known that his main concerns were for the public and for brotherhood among the people, as Hillel stated: "Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, who loves people and brings them near to the Torah" (Avot 1:12).

On the other side stand Korach and his company, who act for exactly the opposite reasons. They do not believe what they themselves claim, but prefer to take the reins in their hands for egoistic reasons. It is not the ideal of holiness that stands at the forefront of their minds, but rather the honor that the people will bestow upon them if they are in leadership positions. They do not consult their relatives – with the exception of On the son of Pelet, who is indeed saved thanks to his wife (Sanhedrin 109b).

At first, the people are blinded by the claims of Korach and his company, and are convinced that Moshe and Aharon covet their positions for personal reasons, for the benefits and the sense of control that come with their offices. Even later, when Korach and his company die in the plague, the people are angry with Moshe and Aharon and accuse them: "But on the morrow all the congregation of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon, saying: You have killed the people of the Lord" (Bamidbar 17:6)

But it is often the case that in moments of crisis, the true nature of the people around us becomes manifest. When the plague breaks out, Aharon does everything in his power to save the people from death, thereby refuting the claim that he is a leader who acts for his own good:

And Aharon took, as Moshe spoke, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people; and he put on the incense, and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. (Bamidbar 17:12-13)

The people, elated by the values and magnanimity demonstrated by Aharon, realize they were wrong in their perceptions of both sides, and they are embarrassed. They acknowledge that God chose Moshe and Aharon because of their righteousness and their values, and certainly not because they chose themselves for their positions: "And the children of Israel spoke to Moshe, saying: Behold we perish, we are undone, we are all undone" (Bamidbar 17:27).

The people did not have a proper perspective on the controversy and on Korach’s claims, and simply followed him like a mob – but in the end, they recognize their mistake and turn for help to their new-old leaders, Moshe and Aharon.

The "Sides" of the Controversy

The fundamental and essential difference between the two sides of the dispute – Moshe and Aharon on the one side, and Korach and his company on the other – also leads us to another implication for the proper perception of the two sides in the dispute. The well-known mishna in tractate Avot distinguishes between a dispute that is for the sake of heaven and one that is not:

Every controversy that is for the sake of heaven will ultimately result in something permanent; but one that is not for the sake of heaven will not result in something permanent. Which is the kind of controversy that is for the sake of heaven? Such as was the controversy between Hillel and Shammai; and which is the kind of controversy that is not for the sake of heaven? Such as was the controversy of Korach and all his company. (Avot 5:17)

If we look closely at the mishna, we see that there is no symmetry between the examples: regarding a controversy for the sake of heaven, the mishna mentions the two sides of the dispute, Hillel and Shammai; regarding a controversy not for the sake of heaven, mention is made only of Korach and his company – on one side of the dispute – with no reference to Aharon and Moshe who were on the other side.

There seems to be here a fundamental principle concerning the proper view of the parties to a dispute: In a real dispute involving values and ideals, each side listens to the opinions of the other side; thus, it is a true and fruitful dispute, and both sides deserve to be remembered. On the other hand, when a disputant does not act out of his values but from extraneous motives, he no longer sees the opposite side, but only his personal benefits. In such a case, it is understood that in fact there is only one side in the dispute – since the other side would actually be willing to listen, were substantive claims sounded. That is why the mishna mentions only Korach and his company, because there was no second party there.

Indeed, the rebellion in our parasha was wrong in every way, for its leaders acted out of personal interest and for a very flawed goal. They sought to challenge the entire world of holiness, which by definition includes inequality and certain disparities. However, this does not mean that all disputes are like theirs. If we look deeper, it seems that there are protests that are important to join because they seek to promote good goals – but only after a true examination of the aspirations of the protest and its leaders.

[This sicha was delivered by Harav Gigi on Shabbat Parashat Korach 5782.]

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