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Korach | Biblical 'Coalition Politics'

Rav Menachem Leibtag

What did Korach take? For some reason, the Torah prefers not to tell us.

Likewise, Korach definitely complains a lot, yet Chumash never clarifies what he proposes instead.

In fact, as we read Parshat Korach carefully, we will discover that many other important details appear to be 'missing!' In this week's shiur we attempt to explain why.

Parshat Korach opens with a pasuk that seems grammatically incorrect - it is missing an object:

"Va'yikach Korach... - And Korach [the son of Yizhar, the son of Khat, the son of Levi] took, and Datan and Aviram [the sons of Eliav] and Oan [the son of Pelet] the sons of Reuven." (16:1)

This opening sentence simply states that Korach took, without explaining what he took! In fact, this pasuk is so ambiguous that almost every commentator offers a different interpretation. For example:

 Rashi - Korach took himself to a 'different side';
 Ramban - he took an "eytzah" (counsel) into his heart;
 Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni - he took 'other people';
 Sforno - he took the 250 'national leaders.'

However, no matter which interpretation is most accurate, a more basic question remains: why does the Torah begin this parsha in such an ambiguous manner? After all, wouldn't the Torah's message be clearer had Chumash been more specific?

In the following shiur, we will show how the answer may lie in the distinct style that the Torah uses to describe this incident. Let's begin by undertaking a careful reading of the opening perek of Parshat Korach (i.e. Bamidbar chapter 16); review it before you continue.

Fighting for a Common Cause
A cursory reading of Parshat Korach indicates that Korach, Datan and Aviram, and the 250 men all unite behind a common cause. Their joint criticism of the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, voiced in their opening protest, demonstrates this united opposition:

"...and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon saying: You have taken too much - for the entire community is holy and God is in their midst; why then do you raise yourselves above God's congregation?" (16:3)

However, it remains unclear from this opening complaint precisely what they want instead:

 Are they calling for 'new elections?'
 Do they want Moshe and Aharon to 'step down?'
 Do they themselves want to 'step up?'
 Are they simply demanding 'spiritual equality?'

Even Moshe's suggestion of a 'k'toret test' in response to their opening complaint (see 16:4-7) reveals very little about their final goal. To see why, let's take a careful look at Moshe's response:

"Come morning, and God will make known who is His and who is holy... and he whom He has chosen... This you shall do, take fire-pans, Korach and his entire group, ... and put on them k'toret before God [i.e. at the Mishkan]... and he [whose offering] God shall choose will be established as 'kadosh'..." (see 16:5-7) What is the purpose of this 'k'toret test?'

 To determine who the true leader should be [Moshe or Korach]?
This would imply that only one offering will be accepted, and that Korach wants to be the leader;


 To determine who is permitted to offer korbanot?
This would imply that possibly all of the offerings may be accepted (or at least some of them), thus suggesting that they are asking for 'spiritual equality.'

However, a more conclusive understanding of the k'toret test emerges from Moshe's second response to Korach (see 16:8-11), i.e. in his censure of "bnei Levi":

"Hear me, sons of Levi - is it not enough... now that He has advanced you and your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the kehuna [priesthood] as well? ... Why then do you complain against Aharon?" (see 16:8-11)

This censure of "bnei Levi" proves that Korach and his followers challenge the decision to limit the kehuna to Aharon and his sons. The dissidents demand that anyone who so desires should be allowed to offer "korbanot," for all members of Israel are 'spiritually equal' ["ki kol ha'eydah kulam kedoshim..." (see 16:3)]. (See Board #1.)

Spiritual Equality
We may logically assume that Korach & Company consider this restriction on the priesthood as Moshe's nepotism, rather than a divine command. [See Chizkuni 16:15.] Hence, the 'test,' as Moshe suggests, will determine who indeed is capable of offering korbanot - i.e. only Aharon, or possibly all (or at least some) of the 250 men as well. [See also 16:16-17.]

[After all, if the 'test' is only a showdown between Korach and Moshe (or Aharon), why should all 250 men offer k'toret?!]

Enter - Group Two
Up until this point, the Torah gives us the impression that everyone mentioned in the opening two psukim - i.e. Korach, Datan, Aviram, and the 250 men - join together in this protest. Hence, we should expect all of them to participate in this 'showdown.'

However, as the narrative continues, a very different picture emerges. Note from 16:12 that not everyone mentioned in 16:1-2 plans to take part in this 'test':

"And Moshe sent for Datan and Aviram, but they answered: We will not come up..." (see 16:12-14)

Why must Moshe send for Datan and Aviram? After all, were they not together with Korach & Company when they first gathered against Moshe (see 16:2-3)?

From their response - "we will not come up" - it becomes clear that Datan and Aviram comprise an independent group. They remain in their own camp [recall that they are from shevet Reuven] and refuse to even come near the Ohel Mo'ed (where the 'k'toret test' is being conducted). (See Board #2.)

Datan and Aviram don't seem terribly interested in 'spiritual equality.' As the narrative continues, we see that they have a very different complaint against Moshe, a more 'political' agenda:

"Is it not enough that you took us out of a land flowing with milk and honey [referring to Egypt!] to die in the desert and now - you continue to act as lord over us! You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey (as Moshe had promised)... [therefore] we will not come up!" (16:13-14)

In this brazen defiance of Moshe's summons, Datan and Aviram totally reject Moshe's political leadership. In their eyes, Moshe has failed. After all, when Bnei Yisrael first accepted Moshe as their leader in Egypt, he had promised to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey (see Shmot 3:16-174:30-31). Now that Moshe has informed Bnei Yisrael that entering the Promised Land is no longer on the horizon (after Chet HaMeraglim), Datan and Aviram (and most likely many others) reject the legitimacy of his leadership and authority. (See Board #3.)

Clearly, this complaint differs drastically from Korach's initial objection to the kehuna! Korach and his cohorts challenge Aharon's exclusive status, but never question Moshe's leadership. After all, they all agree to the 'test' that Moshe himself initiates. Datan and Aviram, however, challenge specifically Moshe's leadership.

Two Groups - Two Gripes
Apparently, this is the story of two independent grievances, raised by two independent groups, situated at two different locations:

 Group One - the 250 men ["adat Korach"] protest Aharon's exclusive rights to the Kehuna. They stand ready for their 'test' at the Ohel Mo'ed;

[Note that the Torah consistently refers to this group as "adat Korach" (see 16:5,6,11).]

 Group Two - Datan and Aviram (and followers) complain against the political leadership of Moshe. They gather in the territory of shevet Reuven.
[This location is later referred to as "Mishkan Korach Datan v'Aviram" (see 16:24-27).]

Of course, it remains to be seen where Korach himself stands on these two issues, but there can be no doubt that there are two groups with two very different agendas.

Moshe's Prayer
Moshe's response to Datan and Aviram's complaint provides additional proof to this distinction:

"And Moshe became angry and said to God - 'al teyfen el minchatam' - pay no attention to their oblation... I have not wronged anyone of them." [JPS translation] (see 16:15)

[Note, the translation of "minchatam" is difficult. Rashi claims that mincha here refers to the k'toret offering, but Ramban (rightly so) disagrees, as Datan and Aviram have no intention to offer the k'toret. Instead, Ramban suggests that it refers to any type of tefila that they may offer. (See also Ibn Ezra and Seforno who explain this pasuk in a similar manner.) Note also that most English translations solve the problem by choosing a word that most people don't understand!]

Here we see how Moshe's response relates to Datan and Aviram's complaint against his leadership. In their case, he cannot conduct a 'test' to prove them wrong. Therefore, Moshe can turn only to God to affirm the legitimacy of his own [divinely appointed] leadership that has now been challenged. Moshe reminds God that he has indeed been a faithful leader who never abused his power.

Re-Enter Group One
Up until this point (16:1-15), the narrative, although a bit complex, has flowed in a logical order: it first presents both groups, followed by the presentation of the individual complaints of each faction. (See Board #4.) But now, for some reason, the narrative begins to 'see-saw,' seemingly randomly, between Moshe's confrontations with each of these two groups.

Note how in 16:16 the narrative abruptly switches from Moshe's response to Datan and Aviram (group II) back to his original confrontation with "adat Korach" (group I):

"And Moshe said to Korach, tomorrow, you and all your company [the 250 men] be before God [at the Mishkan], you and they and Aharon..." (16:16-17; compare with 16:5-7)

Then the narrative continues to describe this confrontation: the next morning, all 250 men assemble at the Ohel Mo'ed ready with their "machtot" (fire-pans) and "k'toret" (16:18), while Korach rallies a mass crowd to watch (16:19). (See Board #5.) But then, just as we await the 'showdown,' again we find an abrupt change in the narrative. Rather than continuing with the saga of the k'toret offered by 250 men or Datan and Aviram's rejection of Moshe's authority, Chumash prefers, for some reason, to leave us in suspense!

Re-Enter Group Two
At this point we find a new 'parshia' (16:20-22), that describes how God suddenly intervenes and informs Moshe that he is about to punish the entire eydah (congregation; see 16:20). Moshe intercedes, arguing that only those who are directly guilty should be punished (see 16:21-22).

However, it remains unclear precisely who is about to be punished. In other words, to whom does the word "eydah" refer:

 Group One - the 250 men offering the k'toret?

 Group Two - Datan and Aviram and their followers?
 The entire nation - or at least those who gathered around [i.e. the 'gawkers']?

(See Board #6.) Although the preceding psukim identify the eydah as the group that has gathered around the Ohel Mo'ed (i.e. Group I; see 16:19), the psukim that follow (see 16:23-27) point us instead to Group Two - i.e., to those who gathered at the campsite of Datan and Aviram:

"And God told Moshe, speak to the eydah and warn them - withdraw yourselves from the area of Mishkan Korach Datan v'Aviram." (16:23-24)

In response to Moshe's prayer, God instructs Moshe to issue a warning to the eydah that has gathered around the campsite of Datan and Aviram. This must be referring to Group Two, since Moshe (to fulfill this command) must leave the area of the Ohel Mo'ed (where Group One has assembled) and go to the area where Group Two is located - i.e Mishkan Korach, Datan and Aviram:

"And Moshe got up and went to Datan and Aviram... and he said to the people: Move away from the tents of these wicked people... lest you be wiped out for all their sins..." (16:25-26)

Note that Moshe must leave his present location (at the Ohel Mo'ed) and go to "Mishkan Korach Datan v'Aviram" (further proof that two separate groups exist). This location, to which the Torah refers as "Mishkan Korach Datan v'Aviram," serves as 'party headquarters' for this rebellious group. Most likely, an alternative leadership group has already formed at this new center.

[Note the Torah's use of the word "mishkan" (dwelling place) to describe their headquarters. Most likely, this term was specifically chosen to indicate that these new headquarters stand in defiance of the Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership, whose headquarters are the "mishkan" at the Ohel Mo'ed!]

Because Group Two challenges Moshe's leadership (and not Aharon's priesthood), it must be Moshe himself (and not Aharon) who confronts this group. Note that Aharon does not accompany Moshe (in 16:25). Instead, he remains at the Ohel Mo'ed, prepared for the showdown with the 250 men (Group I), the group that questions his kehuna.

Two Groups - Two Punishments
To prove to the people the divine origin of Moshe's leadership (despite the many failures of "dor ha'midbar"), God Himself must 'create' a "beriya" - a new form of creation - to punish the people involved. The ground miraculously devours Group Two - Datan and Aviram and those followers who do not heed Moshe's warning (as explained in 16:27-34). (See Board #7 and Board #8.)

But what happened in the meantime to "adat Korach" (Group I) - the 250 men whom we left standing (in 16:18) in front of the Ohel Mo'ed participating in the 'test of the k'toret?'

For some reason, the Torah leaves us in suspense about their fate and returns to them (in a very incidental manner) only in the very last pasuk of this chapter:

"And a fire came forth from God and consumed the 250 men who were offering the k'toret." (16:35)

This final pasuk proves not only that there were two groups in two separate locations, but that there were also two distinct forms of punishments:

 Group One - the 250 men at the Ohel Mo'ed - consumed by fire.

 Group Two - Datan and Aviram & Co. - swallowed by the ground.

(See Board #9 and Board #10.) So where is Korach in all of this? Is he with Group I or with Group II?

He couldn't be two places at the same time, could he?!

Korach - The Politician
To appreciate the nature of Korach's involvement, we must understand his connection to each of these two groups. Before we begin, make sure to look at Board #9 for a summary of our analysis thus far.

At first glance, it appears that each group has some basis for a legitimate complaint.

By challenging the restriction of the kehuna to the family of Aharon, Group One assert their right, as well as the right of others, to offer korbanot.

By challenging the political leadership of Moshe, Group Two voice their concern for the welfare and future of Am Yisrael. In their opinion, remaining in the desert is equivalent to national suicide (see 16:13).

Although Group One has little in common with Group Two, the Torah presents this story as if only one group exists. The narrative accomplishes this by 'jumping back and forth' from one group to the other.

Board #10 (a chart of perek 16) illustrates this 'textual zig-zag.' Why does the Torah employ this unusual style? How does it help us better understand Korach's involvement with each group?

Korach - Where Are You?
First, we must ascertain to which group Korach belongs.

Clearly, he leads Group One, which demands the "kehuna" (see 16:6-8,16-19). Yet, at the same time, he is so involved with Group Two that his name appears first on the banner in front of their party headquarters - "Mishkan Korach Datan v'Aviram!"

Furthermore, although Korach himself is never mentioned in the punishment of Group Two (scan 16:23-34 carefully to verify this), many of his followers, described by Chumash as "ha'adam asher l'Korach," are swallowed up by the ground (see 16:32) together with Datan and Aviram.

In fact, it remains unclear precisely how Korach himself dies. Was he swallowed by the ground or consumed by the fire?

The 'last time he was spotted' was in 16:19 together with the 250 men (Group I) at the Ohel Mo'ed. But from 16:35 it seems that only the 250 men were consumed, but not Korach himself! On the other hand, 16:32 informs us that Datan and Aviram and all of Korach's men were swallowed up - but Korach himself seems to be 'missing!' Did he escape at the last minute from both?

Apparently not. Later in Bamidbar 26:9-10, we are told quite clearly that Korach was indeed swallowed. But to complicate matters even further, Devarim 11:6 implies that only Datan and Aviram were swallowed.

[Based on the complexity of these psukim, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 110a suggests that he received both punishments! First he was burnt by the fire at the Ohel Mo'ed, and then his body rolled to the area of Datan v'Aviram and was swallowed up by the ground.] (See also Ibn Ezra on 16:35.)

What can the Torah's complex presentation of this rebellion teach us about Korach's involvement? Why does Chumash intentionally imply that Korach is in two places at the same time?

This 'zig-zag' style indicates that a strange coalition exists between two groups that have little in common besides discontent.

What motivated the joining of these two forces?

The answer is clear: Korach. The question though remains: Why? What was Korach's motivation in all of this?

One could suggest that this may be the purpose of the ambiguity in the first pasuk of the Parsha (see introduction). By intentionally not finishing the sentence, the Torah wants the reader to ask this very question - what did Korach take? [If you don't ask yourself this question as you begin reading, you may never notice the existence of these two groups as you continue.]

Coalition Politics
Korach 'took' two ostensibly legitimate protest groups and joined them together to form his own political power base. [See Ramban 16:1.] Whereas each group alone may have not dared to openly challenge Moshe and Aharon, Korach encourages them to take action. Datan and Aviram, 'inspired' by Korach, establish their own 'headquarters' - "Mishkan Korach, Datan and Aviram" - in defiance of Moshe's leadership. Likewise, the 250 men, including members of shevet Levi, are roused to openly challenge the restriction of the kehuna to Aharon.

Rather than encouraging open dialogue, Korach incites these two factions to take forceful action. Korach probably saw himself as the most suitable candidate to become the next national leader. To that end, he involves himself with each dissenting group. [Anyone familiar with political science (i.e. current events and/or world history) can easily relate to this phenomenon.] Korach is simply what we would call a 'polished politician.'

A Lesson For All Generations
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:17) considers the rebellion of Korach as the paradigm of a dispute which was "shelo l'shem sha'mayim" (an argument not for the sake of Heaven). Why is specifically Korach seen as the classic example? After all, the arguments presented by Korach ("for the entire nation is holy," etc.) seem to imply exactly the opposite - that it was actually an argument "l'shem shamayim" (for the sake of Heaven)!

Pirkei Avot may be teaching us the very same message to which the Torah alludes through its complex presentation in our parsha. Precisely because Korach and his followers claim to be fighting "l'shem shamayim," Chazal must inform us of Korach's true intentions. Korach may claim to be fighting a battle "l'shem shamayim," but his claim is far from the truth. His primary interest is to promote himself, to build a power base from which he himself can emerge as the new leader.

Parshat Korach thus teaches us that whenever a dispute arises over community leadership or religious reform, before reaching conclusions we must carefully examine not only the claims, but also the true motivations behind them. On a personal level, as well, every individual must constantly examine the true motivations behind all his spiritual endeavors.

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