Parshat Korach תשע”ח
This week’s portion details the events of Korach’s rebellion, along with his 253 compatriots, against Moshe and Aharon (Numbers 16:1,2):
ספר במדבר פרק טז
א) וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן
ב) וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי משֶׁה וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי שֵׁם
1) Korach son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi separated himself, with Datan and Aviram, son of Eliav, and On son of Pelet, the offspring of Reuven. 2) They stood before Moshe with 250 men from the Children of Israel, leaders of the assembly.
Who are these people and what was their gripe with Moshe and Aharon?
Let’s start with Korach, the rebellion’s leader. What prompted this challenge, in his eyes, was the obvious “mistake” that Moshe made by appointing Elitzafan to lead the Kehat family. Kehat, Korach’s grandfather, had four sons. The eldest was Amram (Moshe’s father). Yitzhar, the next eldest, was Korach’s father. Then came Chevron and Uziel, in that order.
Initially, Korach had no problem with Moshe choosing Aharon as the Kohen Gadol, since Amram, Aharon’s father, was Kehat’s oldest son. Thus, the first two positions of leadership should rightfully go to them. Yitzhar was the next eldest son, so the next position should have gone to his eldest son, Korach. But instead of appointing Korach, Moshe appointed Elitzafan, the middle son of Uziel, Kehat’s youngest son. The following chart helps us keep track of the players:
As one of the four holiest people in his family, Korach was eminently qualified for a leadership position. He was one of the people who would carry the Holy Ark when it needed to travel, a job given only to someone of the highest level of holiness. Korach felt that Moshe had something against him, deliberately overlooking him for Elitzafan, a “lesser” personage. There could be no other explanation. Everyone knew that Elizafan was not in Korach’s league. Korach further figured that as a result of Moshe’s closeness to Hashem, Hashem approved Moshe’s choice.
Once Korach got it in his head that Moshe had deliberately neglected him, Korah figured that all the other appointments that Moshe made were also skewed. Moshe decided, and Hashem complied out of His regard for Moshe. Korach’s challenge was an effort to expose Moshe’s nepotism for choosing Aharon as the High Priest.
What made Korach think he would succeed? Rashi explains (16:7) that Korach was so holy that he had divine intuition, which means that he was able to see the future. In his future, he saw an illustrious chain of grandchildren, including Shmuel the Prophet, who was as great as Moshe and Aharon. He concluded that to have such grandchildren, he must survive! What he did not consider was that his children may do teshuva, repent, and be saved despite their father’s activities. The Torah tells us (Numbers 26:11):
ספר במדבר פרק כו
יא) וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתו
11) Korach’s sons did not die.
There is a great lesson here. The natural inclination of every son is to idolize and emulate his father, especially when his father is a great man. One would never have expected Korach’s sons to step back from the argument, evaluate the positions of the two sides and, ultimately, side with Moshe. But we see that this is exactly what they did! At some point, they realized, “Hey! Dad is wrong! Dead wrong! We must do teshuva for having doubted Moshe’s integrity!” For a person embroiled in an argument and so invested in his position, it is very difficult to objectively consider the other side. Yet when a person does so, it may save his life as it did in the case of Korach’s children.
Datan and Aviram, the grandchildren of Reuven, Yaakov’s first-born son, are no strangers to us. They instigated from the very beginning. Do you remember the story of Moshe killing the Egyptian who was beating a Jew, and, the very next day, Moshe saw two Jews fighting? When one lifted his hand to strike the other, Moshe rebuked him and said the famous words, “Evil one! Why do you strike your fellow?” Those two people were Datan and Aviram whose tattling on Moshe to Pharaoh caused Moshe to flee to Midyan. Later, when Moshe and Aharon returned from Pharaoh for the first time, their visit having caused Pharaoh to stop giving straw for the bricks, these are the fellows who complained, “You have only made things worse for your brothers!” These are also the fellows who went out to collect the Manna on Shabbat when Moshe had told them not to.
From when these two first set their eyes on Moshe, they opposed him at every turn. They felt that the leader of the Jewish people should not come from the tribe of Levy who did not have to work as slaves in Egypt. Moshe and his tribe didn’t work a day in their lives! Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, were taskmasters who had taken many beatings on behalf of their brothers who could not produce the expected quota of bricks. This endeared these two rascals to Hashem Who kept them alive through all their challenges to Moshe. Datan and Aviram felt that the Israelite leader should come from the tribe of Reuven, Yaakov’s first-born. True, Reuven made a mistake, but they felt that he should not have been demoted from his position as first born because of it. They were defending the honor of their grandfather Reuven to restore leadership to his descendants. This is where On the son of Pelet, also a grandson of Reuven, came in.
What about the 250 Leaders of the Assembly? Who were they, and what was their gripe?
These were the judges on the high court of the 11 tribes, excluding the tribe of Levy. (23 x 11=253) They were also all first-born boys in their families. The Ibn Ezra explains that this rebellion took place shortly after the holiness was transferred from the first-born to the Levites. Hashem’s original plan was that the first-born boy of every family, the בכור – bechor, be the priests to perform the service in the Holy Temple. This is because Hashem had saved them from the 10th plague ––the killing of the first born–– in Egypt. At that time, Hashem said that all the first-born sons of the Jewish people would be holy to Him. But the sin of the golden calf changed all of that. Because the tribe of Levy did not participate in the sin of the golden calf, Hashem transferred the holiness from the first-born sons to the Levites through a special ceremony. This is why even today there is the mitzvah to redeem the first born son from a Cohen using five silver dollars in a ceremony called פדיון הבן – the Redemption of the First Born. Since a first-born son comes into the world with innate holiness, this holiness needs to be transferred off of the child.
The three-pronged rebellion against Moshe stemmed from very important and prestigious people, but each had his own agenda: Korach to challenge the appointment of Aharon as the High Priest, Datan, Aviram and On to avenge the honor of Reuven, and the 250 first born sons to take back the Tabernacle service from the Kohanim and restore it to the first born sons. This answers an obvious question posed in Pirkei Avot (5:17).
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ה
יז) כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ
17: Every controversy that is for the sake of Heaven will endure; and every one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Hillel and Shamai. And what is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the conflict of Korach and his entire assemblage.
When citing a conflict that is not for the sake of Heaven, instead of stating the opposing sides of the argument like it did with Hillel and Shamai, the Mishna says, “Korach and his entire assemblage.” Should not it have said “Korach and Moshe?”
The answer is that Korach was in disagreement with his entire assemblage. Each faction had a different personal agenda; thus, there were three different opinions to this side of the argument. They were united in one way only, and that was through their common enemy, Moshe. This is the definition of an argument that is not for the sake of Heaven, an argument is over the personal, selfish interests of the people involved. This is what the wrong side of an argument looks like. A disparate group of disgruntled people, each with his own personal agenda seeking to satisfy his selfish, personal need. They are united only by their complete opposition to the same person or cause. They join forces to bring their common enemy down, but then will argue with each other to get what they want.
Hillel and Shamai, on the other hand, argued only about what was the correct law. They had no personal involvement in the argument. Their sole common goal was to figure out Hashem’s will. The Mishna in Tractate Yevamot 13b illustrates this quite nicely:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף יג/ב
אף על פי שאלו אוסרים ואלו מתירין אלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי
Even though there were women who according to Bet Shamai were forbidden to marry Bet Hillel, and women according to Bet Hillel who were forbidden to Bet Shamai, they did not refrain from marrying (undisputed) women from each other’s camps.
You may have acquaintances whom you think are very fine people, but if someone suggested their child as a “shidduch” (potential spouse) for your child you would politely decline. “They’re indeed fine people,” you would say to yourself, “but not that fine! I wouldn’t want my child married to their child.” Bet Hillel and Bet Shamai disagreed over many laws, but, nevertheless, they had the highest regard for each other and they did not refrain from marrying each other’s children.
So, the stage is set. Three formidable antagonists have joined forces to challenge the authority of Moshe as Hashem’s mouthpiece to relate His laws and His decisions to the Jewish nation, each one trying to reverse a different situation that they felt that Moshe had conceived on his own and that had been rubber stamped by Hashem.
Presenting themselves in front of Moshe and Aharon, they said (Numbers 17).
ספר במדבר פרק טז
ג) וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל משֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְדֹוָד וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל יְדֹוָד
3) They gathered themselves against Moshe and against Aharon and said to them, “It is too much for you! For the entire assembly –– all of them–– are holy, and Hashem is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over Hashem’s congregation?”
Their complaint was that they accused Moshe and Aharon of usurping the prestigious positions for themselves without Hashem’s command. Moshe had assumed the role of the king, and Aharon and his children had grabbed the service in the Tabernacle from the first-born. Restricting service in the Tabernacle to only the tribe of Levy implies that the other tribes are not holy enough to serve there. Had the first-born been left alone to perform their jobs, every tribe would have had a representative serving in the Tabernacle. Now, you have now taken all holy service for yourselves, disqualifying us from holiness. But all the people are holy!
Moshe immediately understood the immense ramifications of this challenge and the disastrous effects it would have on foundations of the Torah. If this challenge succeeded in even the slightest way, the veracity of the entire Torah and its revelation through Moshe would be nullified. People would say, “If Moshe couldn’t even convince the people who were there at the time, that the Torah that he gave us was given to him by Hashem, how do you expect me to believe it?” This threat had to be dealt with in the most severe manner possible to establish for all eternity that Moshe followed Hashem’s instructions for everything he did, and did nothing on his own.
The eighth of the 13 Principles of Faith listed by Maimonides states:
סדר שלש עשרה עיקרים
ח – אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה שֶׁכָּל הַתּוֹרָה הַמְּצוּיָה עַתָּה בְיָדֵינוּ הִיא הַנְּתוּנָה לְמֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם
8) I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah that we have today is the very same one given to Moshe.
This concept is the foundation of the Jewish nation!
In responding to Korach and his compatriots, Moshe wanted to give them time to reconsider; he thus said that tomorrow there will be a showdown. This will be the contest: Since you covet service in the Tabernacle, you can bring an incense offering to Hashem. Each of you take a fire pan, put fire from the altar on it, and then put incense on the fire. Aharon will also have a fire pan with incense on it. Hashem will choose the one whom He wants to be the High Priest, but only one incense offering will be accepted. All the others will suffer the same fate as Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons, who died for bringing an unwarranted incense offering to the Tabernacle.
Moshe tried reasoning with Korach and his cohorts but they remained obstinate. That night, Korach went around to the other tribes and said to them, “You think I am doing this just for myself? I represent all of you against Moshe!” With this, he attracted them to his cause, and by the next morning he had gathered the entire nation to the showdown.
The rest of the story is not pretty. Moshe put his position on the line and said: (Numbers 16:28-30):
ספר במדבר פרק טז
כח) וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה בְּזֹאת תֵּדְעוּן כִּי יְדֹוָד שְׁלָחַנִי לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵת כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים הָאֵלֶּה כִּי לֹא מִלִּבִּי
כט) אִם כְּמוֹת כָּל הָאָדָם יְמֻתוּן אֵלֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת כָּל הָאָדָם יִפָּקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם לֹא יְדֹוָד שְׁלָחָנִי
ל) וְאִם בְּרִיאָה יִבְרָא יְדֹוָד וּפָצְתָה הָאֲדָמָה אֶת פִּיהָ וּבָלְעָה אֹתָם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם וְיָרְדוּ חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי נִאֲצוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה אֶת יְדֹוָד
28) Moshe said, “Through this you shall know that Hashem sent me to perform all these acts, that it was not from my heart. 29) If these die like the death of all men, and the destiny of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me. 30) But if Hashem will create a phenomenon, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they will descend alive to the pit, then you will know that these men have provoked Hashem!”
As soon as Moshe finished his statement, the earth opened its mouth, swallowing them, their houses, their families, including their children, alive. Then the earth closed up as if nothing had happened, and Korach, Datan, and Aviram were gone as if they never existed. A fire then descended from heaven and consumed the 250 men who offered the unwarranted incense.
When the Torah lists those who perished, it curiously does not list On the son of Pelet, one of the original rabble-rousers. The Midrash (Tanchuma Korach 10) relates that his wife saved his life. She said to him, “Really, On, what do you have to gain from this argument? If Aharon is the High Priest, you are a student, and if Korach is the High Priest, you are the same student!” She got him drunk, put him in his bed, and sat by the door with her hair uncovered. Anyone who came to fetch her husband to join the rebels, turned away as soon as he saw her uncovered hair. Thus, by not showing up at the showdown, he was saved.
The Torah is not a story book. Any event that the Torah records comes to teach us a lesson in life and as a Jew. What are some of the lessons that we can distill from this episode with Korach and his cohorts?
The first and most important lesson is that Moshe, Hashem’s faithful servant, gave us the Torah exactly as Hashem had instructed him, and there is no possibility that one letter has been altered by him. Hashem verified that by responding to Korach and his cohorts in the way He did. There could be no doubt from this point on.
The second most important lesson is that creating an argument is not the proper way to achieve what you want, when you feel that you have been wronged. Had Korach only approached Moshe and asked him, “Why was I overlooked?” instead of suspecting Moshe of disingenuous conduct, the outcome of this story would have been totally different. The Zohar reveals that Korach was being saved for the position of “The High Levy” (Levy HaGadol) – a position that did not exist yet. Just as there is a “High Priest” there would have been a “High Levy.” Because only Korach was great enough to fill that position, once he died it never materialized.
We can also learn two different tactics for seeing clearly in an argument.
One is to step back and evaluate the situation objectively, as the sons of Korach did. This is what saved them.
The second is to listen to the advice of others, including our spouses, who are more objective than we are. Instead of dismissing out of hand what they say, accusing them of not understanding the issues, we should stop and listen. They surely have a more objective view of the matter than we do if only because (1) they are not directly involved, and (2) they have only our best interests at heart.