Monday, June 18, 2007

Korach is Forever

Of all the complicated characters of the twenty-four books of scripture, Korach tops the list. Here we have a man of great lineage, scholarship and standing who stages a coup to overthrow his cousins, Moshe and Aaron. G-d quashes Korach and his rebellion, but we are left wondering. What was Korach thinking?!

There are many theories about what drove the man. Korach may have desired Elitzaphon’s position as leader of the Kehot branch of the Levite tribe (Rashi). He may have wanted Aaron’s position, the High Priesthood (cf. Bamidbar 16:11) He may have even dreamed of taking Moshe’s position as leader of the nation. Or maybe he just wanted to be a Kohen (cf. 16:10). Whatever he was after, our question remains. All of these appointments were made by G-d and were communicated to the nation via the prophecy of Moshe. Did Korach really think he could win a fight against G-d?

Rashi was troubled by this question and he quotes the Midrash:

Korach was an intelligent man. What caused him to act so foolishly? He was misled by a [prophetic] vision. He saw a great family tree descending from him. [He saw] Samuel, a man on par with Moshe and Aaron… [Korach] said, “Could all this greatness come from me and I should be silent?”

Midrash Tanchuma 2; Rashi Bamidbar 16:7

As it stands, the Midrash does not satisfy. Since when are holy children a license to fight with G-d? What the Midrash is really saying is this: Korach thought G-d was on his side.

Korach was so confident that he was the one most qualified for leadership, he concluded that Moshe was lying. There was no prophecy. Moshe put his brother and friends into positions of power and claimed that he was directed to do so by G-d, but in fact, these appointments were pure nepotism. It was this arrogant belief that made rebellion possible and ultimately cost Korach his life.

Man’s ability to misconstrue G-d’s messages knows no bounds. Here G-d grants Korach a prophetic vision, showing him that in centuries to come he will be blessed with a descendant named Samuel. Samuel was the prophet who anointed Saul and David as kings of Israel. David was a most unexpected appointment (cf. II Samuel 16:6-13), but Samuel had a prophecy. G-d was trying to tell Korach that political and religious appointments are made through prophecy, but the vision backfired. Korach used this very vision as evidence that he was justified in his rebellion against Moshe.

This kind of mistake is reminiscent of an episode in last week’s parsha. When the spies were making their assessment of the land of Israel, they noticed that wherever they went they saw funerals. G-d arranged these funerals to distract the locals and protect the spies from detection (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:32). But the spies had a different take. They returned to the people and gave their report: “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants” (13:32). How frustrating it must be for G-d when His providence is misconstrued!

Korach’s attack on Moshe may have begun by questioning the validity of his appointments, but it did not end there. If Moshe was a liar who claimed prophecy where there was none, why should he be trusted when it came to the mitzvot?

What did [Korach] do? He rose up, gathered 250 heads of court… and dressed them in woolen garments dyed completely techelet-blue. They came and stood before Moshe and asked him, “Is a garment that is wholly techelet obligated to have Tzitzit?” [Moshe] responded that it is obligated. They started to laugh at him. “For any other type of garment, one techelet string of Tzitzit would be sufficient (cf. Bamidbar 15:38), but this garment, made entirely of techelet wool, is not good enough?!”

Midrash Tanchuma 2; Rashi Bamidbar 16:1

Fantastic! Here we have Korach mocking the commandments of G-d, all the while believing that G-d agrees with him! The slope down into theological absurdity and spiritual suicide is a slippery one.

Yes, Korach is a complex character, but he is no anomaly. The Torah dedicates a parsha to his story not because the Torah is interested in teaching history, but because Korach sets a paradigm that is forever. There is always a Korach out there somewhere.

We would be na├»ve to ignore reality. In every generation there are Jews who work to undermine belief in the prophecy of Moshe and the validity of the 613 mitzvot. But here’s the kicker: Some of these Jews claim the mantle of Judaism and sincerely believe that G-d is on their side. Korach lives on!


  1. Korach and his violations:
    1. Publicly neglecting the will of HaShem, or PUBLIC DESECRATION OF HASHEM- "CHILUL HaSHEM".
    2. intolerant of other opinions; NARROW-MINDED and ARROGANT
    4. Allowing his supporters to face possible death; LACK OF LOVE FOR HIS FELLOW JEWS. (Also lack of love for Moshe and Aaron)
    5. Assisting in the loss of love for HaShem by his followers (and development of hatred) when they declared their hatred for HaShem because he took them from a land of milk and honey (Egypt) to be in the desert for 40 years. This public declaration of desecration of HaShem is also a "CHILUL HaSHEM".

  2. I find it frustrating that recently my only 'Jewish' friend, from a Jewish political family, and a leader occasionally in the Jewish community revealed that she "does not believe in Torah" in that it really happened, and that it is only a mere story, and that she cannot understand Torah study in Torah study groups. I mentioned that there is no absolute truth claimed by one person in Judaism but rather various interpretations, differences of ideas, and not disagreements against people. Sometimes I have wondered about the truth behind some people in the Bible living for 300 years but I have also taken this as symbolism (something my friend has trouble with), that may be beyond my personal capability to understand, even at that moment, but nevertheless is true. Do I believe that the world was created 2000 years ago rather than written by human hands as traditional Jews do? About 70% of the time I do and deny myself any scientific evidence stating that the Bible was written by human hands. Yet, I want to respect other ideas on the Torah. I affirm Torah and the truth of it even though I have practical problems in performing the mitzvot. But to deny the Torah is like denying, heaven forbid, G-d. And my hope is that Jewish leaders, like my friend, do not deny G-d and G-d's intent.