Parashat Korah

By Rabbi H. Raphael Goldtsein

I did not have a clue as to what the Torah portion was about on the day of my Bar Mitzvah. I was shocked when Rabbi Joachim Prinz told me about a guy named Korah who rebelled against Moses. I had been a particularly troublesome and rebellious kid in Hebrew School. I will always be very indebted to Rabbi Prinz for what he said to me.

Rabbi Prinz told me that Korah was not evil. He rebelled for what he thought was right. He said that it was ok to rebel for what I believe in, to take risks, to stand up for my beliefs. But Korah failed in his rebellion. Korah embarrassed Moses and Aaron, bringing unrest among the people, achieving none of his goals. Korah rebelled without the savvy or understanding of how to negotiate with the ultimate powers of the world. According to Rabbi Prinz, rebellion was ok, as long as we learn from Korah‘s failures.

What was Korah after? Korah said he wanted fairness and equality in access to G!d: “You have gone too far! For all the community is holy, and the Holy One is in their midst. Why do you, Moses and Aaron set yourselves above the people?” (Numbers 16:3).

But Moses responds by saying that Korah is after special rights for the Levites. Moses says Korah has gone too far (Korah ‘s own words about Moses). But Korah didn’t actually go far enough: he never aired his complaints! Moses bets Korah whose offerings will be accepted by G!d: Korah ‘s or Aaron’s? Korah illogically takes him up on the bet. Korah lost and was consumed by his own fire.

In Rabbinic literature, Korah is a sinner, but not a villain – while he is condemned, the rabbis don’t see him as evil. He’s seen as mocking Moses, yet having a point. In one legend he asks Moses whether a house filled with Torah scrolls should have a Mezuzah on the door. Moses says “yes”, but Korah ridicules that decision. There are other stories, in most of which there were shades of truth in Korah‘s complaint. He projects his own shortcomings onto Moses, saying Moses “lifts himself up above the people”. He accuses Moses, who is famous for his humility, of being arrogant?

But it is Korah who is overreaching. He creates disaster for everyone while claiming to be working for the community. Korah twisted truth ever-so-slightly. It’s dangerous when we believe our own lies, like Korah did.

Rabbi Janet Marder (Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos CA, and the first woman to become  President of the CCAR) suggests that this story teaches two sides of the struggle with which we all live. Each of us contains a Moses, the part that is courageous, right, aware, full of faith and trust. The Moses part looks toward the future with confidence and assurance. And then there’s the Korah part, our purely negative energy waiting to lead us to our own destruction. The internal Korah leads us to be indiscreet, incorrect, harmful to ourselves and others, to sabotage the good things we attempt. Our inner Korah saps our strength, kills our enthusiasm, robs our souls.

Korah is ultimately consumed by his own fire. When Korah is destroyed Moses is able to go on with the journey toward the future. When we overcome our own internal Korah, we can achieve our goals. Our shortcomings, problems, challenges are reflections of our internal Korah. Like Korah, we see what’s wrong in other people, but what we really see is our own reflection. It’s easier to find fault in others than to fix what’s wrong with us.

The rabbis teach, “Who is courageous? Those who overcome their own fears.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) We need our greatest strength for self-mastery, to do battle with the inner Korah, who saps our enthusiasm, mocks our dreams, stunts our growth, poisons our relationships.

May The Holy One give us the wisdom to overcome our own fears, and the courage to win those battles which are for the sake of heaven, for good purposes.


© Dynamics of Hope, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, BCC.  Rabbi Goldstein is the Director of the Department of Pastoral Care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and the founder of Dynamics of Hope consulting,