Korah 5778

A D’var Torah for Korah
by Rabbi Isaac Mann

The conflict between Moses and Korah, which occupies much of this week’s parashah, is usually seen as a struggle between right and wrong. Indeed the Torah itself warns us (Numb. 17:5) that we should not be like Korah and his followers (ve’lo yiyeh khe’Korah ve’kha’a’doto). In a similar vein the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers 5:20) depict Korah and his followers as engaging in a mahloket she’lo le’shem Shamayim (“a conflict that is antithetical to Heaven”) and thus one that we should stay away from. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) it is stated, according to R. Akiva, that Korah and his followers have no portion in the World to Come.

However, a more nuanced reading of the Korah story leaves one wondering whether there was some merit in the arguments that he advanced against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership – and to what extent he actually challenged Moses’ authority. Indeed, the most direct expression of his complaint against the leader of the people comes at the beginning of the parashah (16:3), where he states that “all of the assembly is holy and in their midst is God; so why are you (i.e. Moses and Aaron) lording (pun intended) over the congregation of God.” Is he not espousing a view that essentially claims that all Israelites/Jews are holy, as indeed God declared us to be (“You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” – Ex.19:6)? And if so, why should some individuals be considered holier than others, and by dint of their greater status and closeness to God have greater authority over everyone else? Was he not advancing a primitive, albeit limited, kind of democratic ideal in which the sacredness of each individual is stressed?

Was Korah himself challenging the Platonic notion that even in a “democracy” there is need for leadership – and not everyone is suitable for such a role? Again, a careful reading of the text suggests that Korah was more disturbed by Aaron’s ascension to the high priesthood (see vv. 16:10-11) rather than Moses’ role as leader. Priesthood would seem to be more aligned with being holy, whereas the leadership of Moses depended more on his prophetic qualities, which his protagonist did not challenge. Only Dathan and Aviram explicitly called into question Moses’ leadership (see vv. 16:12-14) and showed him utter disrespect. So we are left with the question why was Korah cast into such a negative light both in the Torah as well as in the rabbinic literature.

Perhaps the answer lies in viewing the disparaging comments (and for the record, there are some statements in the Talmud – Sanhedrin 110a — that depict Korah more favorably than those cited above, including the opinion that Korah himself was not swallowed up by the earth) as focusing not on Korah’s individual complaints but on his methods of bringing his complaints out in the open. Instead of approaching Moses and Aaron in a friendly non-confrontational manner, he chooses to surround himself with various malcontents and rabble-rousers who have different agendas than he does. In place of a civilized and respectful dialogue with the Israelite leaders, he opts for a rebellious confrontation egged on by individuals who indeed are evil and disloyal and wish to upend Moses’ authority, which in effect represents a direct challenge to God’s authority.

Thus, the animus expressed in our literature against Korah is usually directed to Korah ve’adoto (Korah and his congregants/followers). He was mostly faulted for the manner of his opposition to Moses rather than the views he espoused. If you have a legitimate grievance and /or disagreement, as Hillel and Shammai had on numerous issues, discuss it rationally and respectfully (Pirkei Avot 5:20), but eschew conflicts in which you align yourself with people who are contentious and disrespectful and espouse conflict for conflict’s sake.

The Torah makes clear that if you follow in the path of Korah and his hangers-on, you will become like them. And indeed the fate that his adherents deserved was meted out to him as well (according to most opinions). The earth swallowed them up as one. Only such a punishment indicated the type of sin that he committed – for other forms of punishment, by fire or water or plague, usually involve individuals succumbing to their demise one-by-one. But in the case of Korah‘s end, he and his followers and even their belongings went into the earthly grave all at one time (see vv. 16:31-33) as if to indicate that this was his major sin – his joining with wicked people, and so a group retribution in which all died at once was the outcome.

Let us be careful of the company we keep and make sure that our disagreements are never based on mahloket for the sake of mahloket. Let us treat our rabbis and cantors – and all fellow human beings – with dignity and respect.
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.