Materialism and Spirituality among the Rebels

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


Dedicated in memory of Zvi ben Moishe Reinitiz z”l of
Nasgykallo, Hungary,
whose Yahrzeit will be on 2 Tammuz.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


The Netziv, following Chazal’s teaching, draws a distinction between the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense, on the one hand, and the other members of Korach’s company – Datan and Aviram:

“Therefore it must be understood that the two hundred and fifty men were truly great figures in Israel, in every aspect, including their fear of God. The quest for priesthood, which brings attachment and love of God, burned like fire within them – not because they dreamed of power and honor, but rather in order that they might be sanctified and attain this spiritual level through the Divine service… Not so Datan and Aviram, who were far removed from this lofty desire. They were, by nature, quarrelsome men who had hated Moshe even back in Egypt….”[2]

The Netziv’s analysis is well supported by the verses: the parasha presents two different arguments, each putting forth a different set of claims, made by different people. In addition, Moshe’s reaction to each group is different: in addressing the first group, he is willing to negotiate with them and to offer them an opportunity to test their claims, in recognition of fundamental spiritual differences of opinion. This is in stark contrast to his response to Datan and Aviram, which consists of cutting off all contact, and distancing the rest of the people from them.


Datan, Aviram and their followers, pursuers of the good life with its pleasures and convenience, continue to trumpet the rallying-cry of the “mixed multitude” at Kivrot ha-Taava, which also finds expression in the sin of the spies and – in our parasha – the demand to receive “an inheritance of fields and vineyards” (16:14). From their perspective, the debacle of the spies lay in their failure to return the nation to Egypt, which they view as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (16:13). The brazen statements of Datan and Aviram are a further stage in the nation’s encroaching cupidity. Their explicit demand is that “an inheritance of fields and vineyard” and “a land flowing with milk and honey” be held as supreme values.

It is possible that the two hundred and fifty men who join Korach’s rebellion and seek to offer incense are not only protesting the selection of the kohanim, out of an egalitarian world-view that denies a hierarchy of sanctity in the nation, but are also objecting to the materialistic tendencies that have become manifest following the sin of the spies. After the reminiscing about leeks and melons and the demand for fields and vineyards, there is a counter-reaction amongst some who want Am Yisrael to turn its back on the material world and concern itself with Divine service. It is no coincidence that the struggle between them and Moshe centers on the offering of incense. Unlike sacrificial meat and meal offerings, which express sanctification of the material and the recognition that all that one has comes from God and belongs to Him, the incense expresses spirituality and a complete break with the material. Its essence is not the various ingredients that comprise it but rather the cloud – the ephemeral wisps of scent – that it creates.

Thus, there are two groups demanding change after the sin of the spies. One group seeks a fundamental change in the spiritual climate which has brought about this sin; the other wants to bring the plan set forth by the spies to realization. The desires and objectives of these two groups are diametrically opposed, but they are united in their opposition to Moshe and Aharon, and this common denominator leads them to support Korach’s rebellion. Clearly, had this rebellion “succeeded,” there would have ensued a head-on collision between these two groups regarding the new direction that the nation should take.

Datan and Aviram are disappointed that there is no move to return to Egypt, and in response they denounce Moshe, who is prophesying in God’s Name. Moshe cuts off contact with these wicked men and asks God to destroy them and bring them down to Sheol.

The two hundred and fifty men, on the other hand, hold Moshe and his spiritual policy responsible for the sorry state of the nation. Not only do they refuse to accept the Torah’s position concerning the sanctification of the material world; they go so far as to blame this position for far-reaching consequences. In their view, materialism and decadence are not altogether separate from the spiritual world that Moshe has created around the Mishkan and the sacrifices. If the most perfected individuals amongst the nation are immersed in the material world, then the masses, on their lower level, will surely fall into crass decadence.

They also perceive Moshe as being responsible for the hedonism that is spreading throughout the nation for another reason, and that is the choice of the Leviim, as documented in chapter 8 and preceding the sins of the nation which begin in chapter 11. In the view of this group, the fact that the various sins of the generation of the wilderness follow closely after the opening exposition at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar is the result not of the nation’s fear of God’s Presence, but rather of the singling out of the tribe of Levi to perform the Divine service. As they see it, at the root of all the sins that follow is a sense of alienation between the people and God. In other words, the protest of the two hundred and fifty men includes a metaphysical polemic against Moshe, but at the same time also an undermining of his leadership. However, since they are ultimately motivated by a desire for greater sanctity – albeit channeled in the negative direction of rebellion – Moshe does not express anger and frustration, but rather addresses their claims.


The men who offer incense, aspiring to a higher level of spirituality and a banishing of the mundane from the realm of the holy, are punished by being burned – resulting in the entire body being consumed and becoming nothingness. Datan and Aviram, who pursued material ends and sought to remove holiness from the mundane world, are swallowed into the material earth and become part of the dust, along with all the possessions that are so important to them.

The unit setting forth the gifts to the kohanim, which follows after the story of Korach, is a response to both groups. On the one hand, this section emphasizes the holiness of the kohanim and their special status in the Mishkan:

“Therefore you and your sons with you shall keep your kohen’s office for everything that concerns the altar, and within the veil, and you shall serve; I have given your kohen’s office to you as a service of gift, and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death.” (18:7)

This counters the incense offerers, who deny the priesthood. On the other hand, the principle behind the gifts to the kohanim is a lesson to Datan and Aviram, establishing that a person must honor God with his fruits and his produce and not become immersed in selfish hedonism and avarice.

To this we may add that the gifts to the kohanim also express the principle of sanctification of the material and service of God via physical actions such as eating, drinking, and bringing offerings. The fire that consumes the sacrifices on the altar, on the one hand, and the eating of the meat of sacrifices, on the other, do not contradict one another, but rather are mutually complementary. The holy and the mundane belong together in the service of God, and they must not be separated.



[1] Ed. note: The ideas in this sicha are elaborated upon in Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein’s book, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (Jersey City, 2008).

[2]  Ha’amek Davar, Bamidbar 16:1.