Korah: What We Don’t Understand Can Feel Threatening

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Korah’s rebellion annually confronts us with issues of trusting leaders, warns us of the self-interest that can delude us completely, can give us mistaken confidence we are correct as we head down a disastrous road. This time around, I think Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban raise the possibility it was the introduction to the sanctity associated with the Mishkan that sent things down a wrong path, Korah and his cohort unable or unwilling to learn the nonintuitive rules of the strange new world.

Fooling Ourselves About Ourselves

Only such a level of misunderstanding can explain the two hundred and fifty men, as Rashi portrays them, 16;6. He says Moshe told them the Jewish people would not be like other nations, with a multitude of gods and priests. They could all submit incense pans, as long as they knew only one of them would be chosen, and anyone else who offered a pan would die.

And they all did. It is an image I want to emphasize: Moshe has told them Aharon was the chosen High Priest, told them they can have a competition about the job with the caution it involved a capital offense for anyone other than the true High Priest, and they each kept going, as if there was a real chance it would be them! For Rashi, something got each of these men to the point he told himself he had enough of a shot at being chosen as High Prest to risk his life. Ramban, 17;2, thought their sincerity, misplaced as it was, justified using those pans as a covering for the altar.

Fooling Ourselves About Our Leaders

Korah played on their egos to get them to that point. Rashi tells us he spent the night going tent to tent to convince the people, with the argument Moshe was acting in his own and his family’s interests, not the people’s. Ramban adds another element to which I think we can relate, suggests Korah told the people he was fighting for them, to restore the priesthood to the first-born of all the tribes (as it had been before the sin of the Golden Calf, the reason Parshat Bamidbar had the Levi’im taken as redemption for the first-born).

Between Rashi and Ramban, we see the outlines of a demagogue, drawing people to his side by playing on their self-interest, convincing them to join him, wholeheartedly, on a disastrous path.  Unfortunately for them, they did not stop to look at Korah’s character or motives, did not notice they were throwing aside more important principles—such as the recognition of Moshe’s elevated stature and prophetic level—in favor of what felt good to them.

That same night, Moshe summons Datan and Aviram. Rashi points out he was modeling what should always be true, that we look for peaceful outcomes of disputes, even if that requires us to deal with people we find less than savory, 16;12. In their rejection of his call, they reveal another story they told themselves to justify their actions. They say, “ha-einei ha-anashim ha-hem tenaker,” a phrase Onkelos reads as “are you going to send people to blind us,” painting Moshe as the type of leader who enforced his rule with goons and physical force rather than legal process. If my leader were like that, I too might not obey his summons; the surprise lies in their allowing themselves to believe such a thing about Moshe Rabbenu. [Although not in the parsha, it is worth noting that people who claim that about other leaders often end up following or being exactly those kinds of leaders, who use physical force where the process does not get them where they want to go.]

I have come to think it cannot be said enough: the roots of one kind of communal catastrophe lie in people putting their self-interest ahead of truth, thinking wrongly ill of their leaders, and having too much confidence in their views of the world, their righteousness and worthiness. That way, Korah lies.

Sin Does Not Just Go Away

When Gd threatens to destroy the people, Moshe and Aharon pray for them (itself remarkable, since these are the people who were maligning them). They argue, 16;22, it is unfair to punish the whole people when one man yeheta, a word that usually means sin. The same root appears where Gd tells Moshe to give the incense fire-pans to Elazar, 17;3, the men who offered them being called hata’im. Onkelos in both these places (and elsewhere) translates hov or hovaya, guilt or the guilty, to me his way of emphasizing an idea I worry we often forget: guilt incurs liability, creates a punishment debt, as it were. Beyond the badness of sin, it means there is punishment looming.

The paying of the piper does not always come as obviously as it did with the 250 men. During the discussion of the plague, Ramban digresses to the one in David’s time, which was apparently a reaction to David’s taking a census. Ramban thinks the people there were also being punished for their failure to work to build a Beit Ha-Mikdash. Their apathy to the structure that would be a culmination of the Exodus already had them on the hook for a plague, in Ramban’s view (reminding us heaven-sent troubles, even when we recognize they were heaven-sent, do not always signal clearly the cause that led to them. It can be up to us to figure it out, and to recognize it might not be the most immediately obvious one.)

It can lead to complaints of the inscrutability of the Divine wrath. When the tests have been concluded, Aharon is definitely High Priest, and the people again complain, 17;27, they will all be killed. Onkelos thinks each of the phrases, gava’anu, avadnu, kulanu avadnu, refers to a particular episode of their being killed. In his view, they were saying, “look at all the ways we have been punished, there’s no way to understand it, how will we not always be killed?”

The truest answer—do not sin or rebel, do not claim Gd’s appointed leaders put themselves in the position illegitimately—did not occur to them.

Exemplary Leadership Is Not Enough

Moshe and Aharon’s reaction to the rebellion shows us how much is expected of leaders. Beyond their not having done anything wrong, 16;4 says Moshe fell on his face in reaction to the Korah group’s challenge. Ramban says Aharon refrained from reacting lest it look like he was mounting a defense of himself. In his humility, he wanted them to see he had no illusions he was more deserving than they, had taken the job only at Moshe’s behest.

The idea seems to me to fit well with Aharon’s having stayed silent when his two sons were killed during the dedication of the Mishkan. An element of Aharon’s leadership, perhaps, was his ability to hold back when the moment called for it, in the face of obvious other pressures to speak up.

Moshe does not take the same tack with Datan and Aviram’s insults. He reminds Gd he has not taken anything from the people, even a single donkey, 16;15. Onkelos reads nasa’ti, taken, as shaharit, assessed them, meaning Moshe was defending his conduct of communal affairs, saying he had been careful about what financial demands he made of the people. (Why he had to say this to Gd, Who obviously knew it already, is a topic our commentators do not address here). Rashi thinks it means he did not take legitimate reimbursement, such as his moving costs from Midian to Egypt, to lead the people out.

For Rashi, Moshe did have limits, in that he asks Gd not to respond to the sacrifices of the men challenging his leadership, either the ones they were bringing or their share of the daily communal sacrifices. He did a lot, led the people properly and well, went beyond the call of office in his financial rectitude, but his patience was not infinite.

After the event, though, he prayed on behalf of these same people, hoping to avert their deserved punishment. As David did when the census led to a plague.

Jewish leaders in the mode of Aharon, Moshe, and David approach their jobs with humility, bear insults as they take more than required care with the people’s finances, and work on the people’s behalf even when those same people repudiate them.

Mysteries of Sanctity

Three comments about items of sanctity seem to me to give interesting background to why the Jews could not accept Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. To stop the plague, 17;11, Moshe tells Aharon to take ketoret, incense, and stand between the living and the dead (and it works). Rashi says the Angel of Death taught Moshe the secret of the incense when he was in heaven receiving the Torah.

Two verses later, Rashi has another view, Gd had Moshe use ketoret because Nadav and Avihu had been killed while offering ketoret, as had the 250 men. Gd wanted to counteract the people’s impression ketoret brought death.

I think the contradictory views show a problem the people would have had; was ketoret a way to save lives or a danger to those lives? Hard to know. They were meeting a realm of the world where their prior intuitions, and the evidence of their eyes, did not tell them what it all meant.

Earlier, we saw Ramban’s idea the 250 mens’ mahtot became sanctified by their sincere offering it. He in fact prefers another explanation that again makes a point we likely would not have dared say on our own. He says the mahtot became sanctified because Gd had commanded the men to bring them. While it was not for a desirable reason, the fact of their having obeyed a divine command—even if for a bad reason—sanctified the incense pans. Not what I would have thought.

Another example of the non or counterintuitiveness of sanctified circumstances comes in 18;10, where Gd tells Aharon and his sons to eat their part of certain sacrifices be-kodesh ha-kodashim, a phrase most easily translated as in the Holy of Holies. Although he eventually argues the phrase here means how they ate these meats rather than where, he does entertain the Midrashic idea of R. Yehudah b. Beteira, who thought Gd was telling them they could eat sacrifices in the Holy of Holies if there was no where else to go, such as if non-Jews had invaded the Temple, were in the first room, they could flee into the Holy of Holies to eat.

A very counterintuitive image: non-Jews in the Temple, kohanim rushing to eat sacrificial meat.

The Separate Path of the Tribe of Levi

It’s a very different world, I am saying, which I think also explains why Gd tells Aharon, 18;20, he is not to have a share in the Land of Israel (nor will the Levi’im), an idea Ramban extends to the cities they do get, those are not really theirs, either, they were given them to care for exiled murderers.

Even so, the idea of agricultural gifts was apparently important enough for Gd to find a way to include Levi’imwho had to give a kohen a tenth of what regular Jews gave them. Rashi, 18;27-28, points out this terumat ma’aser had elements of Jews’ ma’aser to it (it was a tenth, for one example), as well as elements of terumah (a non-kohen may not eat it). Some parts of the terumah and of the ma’aser process were necessary for all non-kohen Jews, I think Rashi implies.

Korah and others could not stand the idea that the direct access to Gd would go to Moshe and his family, a position they got to by being less than honest with themselves about who they were and who Moshe and Aharon were. Moshe and Aharon handled themselves well throughout the incident, evidence they were in fact the ones worthy of taking a role among the people that forced them out of the intuitive, into where it is what Gd wants or does not that counts, not what we think should happen.

If we can absorb that fully, we can hope to avoid another Korah, as the Torah tells us we are supposed to make sure to do.

About Gidon Rothstein

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