Korach - Idealogue or Provocateur

  • Rav Alex Israel

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

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PARASHAT KORACH

 

Korach - Ideologue or Provocateur?

 

by Rabbi Alex Israel

 

 

Our parasha describes yet another dark episode in the series of wilderness uprisings.  This time, we have a new type of rebellion on our hands.  Unlike the episode of the spies or the story of the "lusting" for meat, this rebellion is not directed against God.  Rather than taking God to task, rejecting the desert conditions and wishing for Egypt, this popular uprising targets Moses and Aharon directly.  This is not so much a revolt against God as a mutiny.

 

The leader of the rebellion is Korach, Moses' cousin.  He leads a well-orchestrated campaign against Moses and Aharon amassing quite a following.  But it isn't all simply personal.  Like any mass movement, there are spiritual arguments and ideological claims to his propaganda.  We will look into the agenda that Korach raises against Moses and Aharon.  What does he say that gains such wide appeal? Is there genuine reason for complaint? Is Korach a well-meaning ideologue or a political opportunist?

 

This week, we shall attempt to answer some of these questions by using midrash.  Rather than viewing midrash as simple legend, we shall use the Midrashic tradition as a sophisticated commentary, highlighting important themes and variant strains in the Torah text. 

 

MIDRASH 1.  ALL THE PEOPLE ARE HOLY

 

"'And Korach took'(16:1): What parasha precedes this episode? - 'Speak to the Israelites concerning the making of Tzitzit (fringes).'(15:34) Korach jumped up and turned to Moses: 'You say, "Put on the fringe a thread of blue (tekhelet) wool." (ibid.) What about a garment that is itself a blue color (tekhelet), would it not be exempt from the blue thread (on the Tzitsit)?' Moses replied, 'It is obligatory to have the blue thread.'  Said Korach, 'A garment which is all blue is not exempt and four meager threads do the trick!?'

 

'A room full of Sifrei Torah, would it need a Mezuza?' Moses answered in the affirmative.  Korach replied, 'The Torah contains 275 sections and they are not enough to fulfill the house's obligation to have a Mezuza, but these two sections (written in the Mezuza scroll) will fulfill the obligation for the entire house! Moses, you must be making this stuff up!" (Midrash Tanchuma)

 

At first glance, it would seem that Korach's challenge lies in the detailed technicalities of a Torah discussion.  The argument here revolves around a certain logical inconsistency in the system of commands prescribed by the Torah.  A four cornered garment must be adorned with ritual fringes - Tzitzit - which contain a thread dyed blue by the tekhelet die (a rare and expensive dye). Korach asks about a four cornered garment which is entirely tekhelet in color.  He laughs at the law which would obligate such a garment to affix a special additional blue thread.  If the objective is to affix a blue thread, why is this necessary with an entirely blue garment? Likewise, if a room contains an entire stock of Torah scrolls, why does it need the miniscule Mezuza scroll on the door?  Are the contents of the room not enough? So at first glance, the argument is a challenge to Torah law and its

authority.

 

But look closer; both these halakhic examples are identical.  The cases examined both concern logical inconsistencies in which the lone ritual act is considered superfluous due to the presence of a much larger representative element.  What do both these stories tell us about Korach's rebellion? Was the rebellion based on Torah discussions? Or, maybe, this Midrash is hiding a deeper reading of the text:

 

"They massed against Moses and Aharon and said to them, 'You have gone too far, for ALL THE COMMUNITY IS HOLY, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.  WHY DO YOU RAISE YOURSELVES above the Lord's congregation?'"(16:3)

 

"For all the community is holy... Why do you raise yourselves." The argument voiced here is not a discussion about Torah.  It is a strident call for equality and democratization.  Korach attempts to undermine Moses' position on simple democratic grounds.  All the people are holy and God is in their midst.  We don't need leaders or intermediaries. 

 

He uses the metaphor of the Tallit, the four cornered garment, and the Mezuza.  Both of these laws are symbolic, and designed to lead to a higher purpose.  The law of Tzitzit is to act as a "reminder" of God's presence within our lives.  "The tekhelet color is similar to the sea which is similar to the sky which reminds us of God's Holy presence." (Rashi on 15:34).  The special tekhelet blue is supposed to direct the heart and mind heavenwards.  Likewise we place the Mezuza as a reminder so that "these words will be on your heart" (The Shema - Deut 6:2).  These laws are not important in themselves, says Korach; they are simply to lead a person to God.  Logic would suggest that a tekhelet garment, with a full blue color, is indicative of God in a more intense and powerful manner than the modest blue thread of the Tzitzit.  Likewise, how can a Mezuza replace the Torah scroll in its entirety!

 

A Torah scroll is essential to fulfill the dictates of the law.  But Korach asks, why is it necessary to limit the symbolic act to a single thread, to a small piece of parchment? Why not extend it to the entire garment, the whole house? And by the same logic, why not crown the entire nation with Torah, with leadership? If they are all holy, then why is Moses or Aharon in a position of privilege? Why not give the prophecy or the high priesthood to the average man? All the people are holy (the entire Tallit is blue) so why do we need leaders (a special thread)? Why are you - Moses - standing aloof in the leadership role? Do you not respect the holiness of the nation? Do you view yourselves as "holier" in some way?

 

WHO IS HOLY?

 

So the argument is a moral, democratic one.  This Midrash gives us a halakhic reading which supports this egalitarian line of argument.  Now, with this background, another central detail of the story is more readily understood.  This relates to the test which is used to prove the authentic leadership group.

 

"...In the morning, the Lord will make known who is his, and WHO IS HOLY... and he who He has chosen will be brought close to Him.  This is what to do: take firepans, Korach and all your band, and tomorrow put fire on them and lay incense upon them before the Lord.  Then the man who the Lord chooses, HE SHALL BE THE HOLY ONE.  You have gone too far, sons of Levi!" (16:5-7)

 

Moses offers the Korach clan to act as High Priest for a day.  They will perform the incense ritual, the most holy of rituals, which also carries a death penalty if abused.  Moses' challenge to the Levite rebels is a direct response to their own argument.  Apart from the symmetry in the linguistic retort ("You have gone too far"), Moses seems to be juggling with this issue of "Holiness." If the people are indeed "holy" as Korach claims, and therefore befitting of the leadership, then the incense should work for them.  Is everyone a holy person befitting of the priesthood or is the holy person the person who God chooses? The "showdown" takes place "before God." It is only God who can decide who has the authentic aura of "holiness."

 

Professor Yishayahu Leibowitz deepens the connection between Tzitzit and Korach when he notes that the paragraph about Tzizit also raises the issue of "Holiness":

 

"And you will see them (the Tzitzit) and remember all the commands of the LORD, not straying after your heart or your eyes... in order that you may remember and perform all my commandments AND YOU WILL BE HOLY TO THE LORD."

 

Yishayahu Leibowitz puts it in the following way:

 

"The difference between these two perceptions of 'holiness' is the distinction between religious faith and pagan worship.  The holiness of parashat Tzitzit is not a given assumption but a task.  There we are not told, "You are holy," but a demand is made to "become holy." But in the religious consciousness of Korach and his followers, "The entire congregation is holy." Holiness is something bestowed upon one.  

 

The distinction between the two concepts is deeper still...  In parashat Tzitzit, holiness is expressed in the most sublime aspect of the life of faith and the religious mindset of man; that he is required to accept upon himself a task.  Nothing is promised or assured.  He is simply charged with a demand...  But, in the holiness of Korach and his group... man frees himself from responsibility, from the mission with which he is charged and from the obligation to struggle." (Notes on the Weekly Parasha pg.96-97)

 

So, here is an argument which relates to democratization and holiness.  Is holiness a virtue which is innate within the Jewish nation or is it something that one must work towards, something to achieve? If it is the former, then there really is no good reason to accept Moses and Aharon over Korach as national leader.  But if the latter is correct - that holiness is a product of years of self-refinement - then Korach's argument begins to look exceptionally weak.

 

MIDRASH 2 - INTEGRITY OF A LEADER

 

What did Korach do? He gathered the entire congregation and began to tell stories:

 

"There was once a widow in my neighborhood who had two little girls, orphans.  She owned a modest field (from which they made their living). She began to plough the field; Moses told her 'Do not plough with an ox and an ass together'(Deut.  22:10).  She began to sow the field, He said 'Do not sow the field with mixtures of seeds (Lev. 19:19).  She began to harvest the crop; he said, 'leave the gleanings, and the edge of your field for the poor.'  She gathered the harvest; he said 'Give the tithes to the Priest and the Levite.'  She gave it all to him.  She sold her field and bought two sheep in order to clothe her children from their fleece and to gain profit from their offspring and milk.  They gave birth; Aaron came and demanded the firstborns, as it states: 'Every firstborn... you must sanctify to God. 'first of the fleece,' he said.  "God gave it to me, as it states, "The first of the fleece give to him."(Deut.  18:14)' .... she stood there crying with her two daughters.  That is what they did to this desperate woman.  This is what they do and they pin it all on the word of God."  (Midrash Tehillim)

 

Korach is quite a story teller.  He knows how to motivate the crowds, to appeal to their soft side.  Like every good politician, he uses images of poverty stricken single-parent families to arouse public anger.  Let us examine his argument, contained within this text. 

 

The Midrash is apparently suggesting another tactic in Korach's propaganda armory.  Korach raises the following accusation: Moses and Aharon are using the Torah, abusing the Torah, to their own personal gain.  They interfere in the lives of every normal person, always making demands which they claim are based in the Torah text and therefore in God's law.  But is it a coincidence that many of these benefits go into their own pockets? (And let us not forget that it was Moses who brought the law to the people in the first place.  Is it a coincidence?) He has ample "evidence" at his disposal, and he manages to combine these facts with a perfect sob-story.

 

Does this Midrash have a rooting in the text? Where do these themes manifest themselves in the Torah narrative? There is one point in the story where Moses seems to get personally offended, a very unusual trait for Moses.  In his episode, Moses calls Dathan and Aviram - Korach's colleagues - to a meeting in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

 

"Moses sent for Dathan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, but they said, 'We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness that you would also lord over us?' ... Moses was greatly saddened and he said to God, "Pay no attention to their prayers.  I have not taken the ass of any one of them nor have I wronged any one of them." (16:12-15)

 

This text is somewhat strange.  Moses' response seems inconsistent with the accusations which have been leveled against him.  Dathan and Aviram accuse Moses of failing in his mission of taking the Israelites to the promised land.  Moses is offended, upset and turns to God.  But his prayer to God relates to a very different theme.  Moses appeals to God with a request that the prayers of these men be ignored, but more than that.  Moses asks God to testify and reaffirm that he, Moses, has been absolute in his personal integrity as leader.  We have not heard these words, these accusations directly in the text, but our Midrash in typical Midrashic style, ably puts these words into Korach's eloquent mouth.  Moses is bothered far more by the raising of questions regarding his personal honesty than the critiques of his leadership achievements.  The Midrash here manages to uncover these hidden accusations which are the barbs that hurt Moses the most.  Korach has portrayed Moses as a scheming trickster!!

He has even undermined the divine authority of the Torah in the process.  These are the words and ideas which can cause the most devastating damage in the long term. 

 

Maybe this is the reason that public miracles are used to defeat the rebellion.  A statement from God is the only way that these false accusations can indeed be proven false. 

 

MIDRASHIC APPROACH No. 3 - A FAMILY ARGUMENT

 

"Why did Korach create a dispute? His uncle, Eltzafan the son of Uzziel was appointed as chieftain over the Tribe of Levi (Numbers 3:30).  Korach said, 'My father is one of four boys - "And the sons of Kehat: Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uzziel."(Ex.  6:18) Amram the firstborn, has his son Aaron as the priest and Moses as the national leader.  Who should take the role of chieftain? Obviously the second son, and I am Yitzhar's son! I should have become chieftain and now Moses has appointed the son of Uzziel - the youngest - over me! I am going to oppose Moses and overturn the appointment." (Tanchuma)

 

Here, the Midrash does not make an attempt to cloak Korach's rebellion in any ideological stance.  Here we have simple family rivalry.  We have one member of a family resenting the advance of his cousin.  Korach is jealous and it is his self-centered ambition which fuels the rebellion.

 

TIMING

 

It is interesting to think about what series of events precipitated this rebellion.  What caused the feeling in the camp to be such that the leadership of Moses and Aaron were questioned? NACHMANIDES suggests that the rebellion happened in the wake of the decree that Israel wander in the desert for forty years.  After this event the national morale plunged to an all-time low.  The people were bitter and despondent.  This was not the first hiccup in the journey to the promised land, and the emotional climate provided fertile ground for cultivating feelings of discontent amongst the people.  Korach simply took advantage of these emotions and developed the themes of Moses' leadership failure, embellishing it and making it into a full-scale mutiny.

 

But the IBN EZRA sees the issue differently.  He speaks of the elevation of the tribe of Levi (see Bemidbar Ch.3,4,8) as the main cause of the rebellion.  The people saw Moses giving special rights and privileges to his own tribe.  Now the Levites served in the Temple and were eligible to receive tithes from the rest of the nation.  Who set up this hierarchy? Who decided that the Levites be more prestigious? Moses. 

 

Now this argument is somewhat problematic, seeing that Korach himself is a Levite, but the Ibn Ezra explains that this was Korach's genius.  He had the ability to unite multiple groups with completely different agendas under a single banner: "All the people are Holy!" The Ibn Ezra explains that the appointment of the Levites to High Service and the subsequent "reshuffle" opened a Pandora's box of complaints.  The firstborn Israelites (Korach was a firstborn) were upset that they had been "demoted" from the Temple service.  Reuvenites (Reuven is the firstborn tribe of Jacob) like Dathan and Aviram were wondering why the Levites had been chosen and their tribe passed over.  The Levites were offended that only Aaron's sons had received the call to the Priesthood whereas they - the Levites - were mere assistants.  Korach took all the malcontents and united them in a call for democratic appointment.

 

Look at these readings of the timing of this rebellion.  They each seem to reflect one of the strands raised in our Midrashim. 

 

SUMMARY

 

We have seen a number of attempts to explain this rebellion.  Was it fueled by ideological egalitarianism or personal jealousy? Was it a genuine feeling of no confidence in Moses, accusations regarding his personal integrity, or were the Israelites simply looking for a scapegoat after the decree to wander for forty years?

 

And then, there is a second question; who is stirring up the trouble? Is it Dathan and Aviram, or is it the 250 chieftains or is it Korach himself? It would seem that each group here has a clashing agenda, but yet they are working together in harmony.  Then diverse arguments associated with Korach suggest to us that Korach's mutiny, rather than being a unified movement, might have been a coalition of several factions with very different agendas.  Korach - the Levite and relative of Moses - is joined by "Dathan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and Onn... all Reuvenites... and two hundred and fifty chieftains of the Israelite community." (16:1-2) It would seem that most of these people are motivated, to a significant degree, by personal self-interest.  Maybe it is for this reason that the Mishna states:

 

"Every controversy which is pursued in a heavenly cause is destined to be perpetuated and that which is not pursued in a heavenly cause will not be perpetuated.  What is a controversy for the sake of heaven? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shamai.  And what is that controversy that is not pursued in a heavenly cause? This is the argument of Korach and his clan" (Avot 5:17)

 

This argument is not directed towards heaven.  It looks towards earth.  It is not really about ideals at all.  The ideals are just a foil for the real ambition, the personal vendetta, the desire for fame and power.  Korach's group had no unified agenda other than toppling Moses.  It is for this reason that their issues "will not be perpetuated." A moral or ideological truth lasts forever, an ideological discussion will endure and provoke thought and spiritual growth.  Such is the argument of Hillel and Shamai, who fought with the words of Torah.  But a self-centered argument driven by misplaced personal ambition at the expense of others will always be consumed by its own fire - just like Korach.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

FOR FURTHER READING.

 

For a clear textual, structural and thematic analysis of the various factions and causes in the Korach rebellion, see Rav Menachem Leibtag's shiur on Parashat Korach.

 

For an approach that views the Korach debate in terms of an argument as to the nature of Torah, see Reflections of the Rav vol. 1. by Rabbi A. Besdin; Chapter XIII (pg.139-149) entitled, "The Common-Sense Rebellion Against Torah Authority."