The Great Mutiny Against Moses


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 16:1-18:32
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Havdalah: 9:22 p.m.

This week’s parsha stands as the paradigm in the Rabbinic tradition for what differentiates arguments that are l’Shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) versus those that are of a pernicious and illegitimate nature.

Korach, a Levite cousin of Moshe and Aaron, is responsible for four rebellions: Levites against Aaron; Datan and Aviram against Moshe; the tribal chieftains against Aaron; and the entire community against Moshe and Aaron.

Against Moshe and Aaron? It seems hard to believe. What were the complaints? What led to such mutiny? Elsewhere in in the Torah there seemingly are challenges to authority, whether Abraham pleading with God to save Sodom, or the daughters of Zelafchod turning to Moshe to ask for inheritance rights. So what made Korach’s argument not l’Shem Shamayim, so different that not only would the earth swallow up Korach and his minions but a plague would break out to finish off thousands of their followers?

A common view of our community is that complaining is almost second nature to us. A humorous story from yesteryear illustrates this: Mr. Stein was hospitalized in one of the best hospitals but left and checked himself into a small run-down Jewish hospital on the Lower East Side. One of the new doctors said, “I am curious why you’d leave such an excellent hospital. Was it the doctors? The nurses? The rooms? The food?”

“Oh no,” said Mr. Stein. “The doctors were wonderful, the nurses were angels, the rooms had the best views, and the food was great.”

“Well,” asked the puzzled doctor, “why did you decide to come to this hospital with all its faults?”

Answered Mr. Stein, “At this hospital, here I can complain!”

It may be true that we like to complain but what we see in this parsha is not just complaints but full-scale rebellion. It isn’t a mere questioning of procedure but an all-out assault on Moshe’s leadership and Aaron’s priestly privileges. All the community is holy [Num. 16:3], said Korach, not just you and Aaron; who are you to lord over us? You have too much power, too much prestige. How does Moshe react? He falls on his face, not in reaction to the personal nature of the attacks but as the Midrash teaches us, he was afraid that his many pleas on the Jewish people’s behalf might have exhausted his influence with God.

After suggesting an incense test for holiness, Moshe rises to defend Aaron and says to these Levites, it is not enough that God gave you your job, you also want Aaron’s job [Num. 16:8-10]? And still, with all these forces allied against him, what does Moshe do? He reaches out to Datan and Aviram. As Rashi says, he attempts to heal the breach in the community. He calls to them “vayishlach” [Num. 16:12], come to me, let’s sit down, lets discuss this. They answer, “lo na’aleh,” we will not come; we will not obey your orders. We won’t even meet you halfway. The rabbis point out the irony of their words, literally meaning “we will not go up” and indeed they will be swallowed alive by the earth, going down.

So here we have Korach, the arch demagogue, looking to inflate his own power and prominence, seeking to instigate terrible controversy for his own personal gain. The Midrash says Korach was not only challenging Moshe’s leadership but that of the Torah and ultimately God. Yehoshaya Leibowitz notes that Korach’s demagogy is exposed when he says “the entire community is holy,” he is actually saying that all of us have achieved our goal, and unlike the Torah’s view that we, the community, have to continually work at becoming holy, nothing more needs to be demanded of us.

This parsha certainly leaves the impression that once the earth swallowed up Korach and the plague finished off the rest that would be the last we heard of them. And yet a few chapters later, in Pinchas, we read that B’nai Korach, the children of Korach did not die [Num. 26:11]. But how could that be when in this parsha we are led to believe that Korach and his followers, including his descendants died?

Some commentators explain this by saying the children of Korach continued in the divisive ways of their father and in so doing came to represent all those in every generation—including our own—who complain, who sow divisiveness, who put their own self-interest above the communal interest. Another commentary says, indeed the children of Korach did not die because they repented and as Levites later composed and sang a half-dozen Psalms that we say to this very day.

Both explanations offer powerful examples to us in our own day, to not be like those who sow dissent for self-interest, those who refuse to even sit down with the other, and always know better. Better to follow the second understanding of B’nai Korach, to turn away from strife and embrace a path of unity, a striving for the holy and a life filled with the song of harmony.

Dr. Adena Berkowitz is co-founder/scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah: the Center for Jewish Life and Enrichment; co-author of Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy; and visiting lecturer, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.