Parashat Korah

Numbers 16:1–18:32

June 25, 2011 / 23 Sivan 5771

This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor, JTS.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Korah and his rebel faction, despite the fact that they made life difficult for Moses, Aaron, and God.

Consider the predicament of the Israelites who rise up against their leaders. They have just been told that, because of the sin of the spies, they and the entire adult generation counted in the census that gives the book of Numbers its name are sentenced by God to wander the wilderness until they die. They would not live to see the Promised Land. Nor would they be buried in marked graves that could be visited by their descendants.

Overcome by grief and remorse, the Israelites' first response to that awful news had been to change course and prepare to fight the Canaanite tribes whom they had previously declared invincible, only to be warned by Moses that without God in their midst, they would suffer a crushing defeat. They had marched up to the hill country anyway, and had been dealt a crushing blow by the Amalekites.

That is the background to Korah's rebellion, which must be seen as an act of desperation by people who had nothing to lose and everything to gain from doubting the veracity of the reports that Moses conveyed to them about God's will. Suppose, just suppose, that Moses was wrong about God's intentions for Israel. Suppose he had unfairly usurped authority over the rest of the Levite tribe and the people as a whole. "All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst," the rebels declare (Num. 16:3). Why should God punish them as severely as Moses had said? How could it be that God would deny them mercy and a second chance? Did God bring them out of Egypt only to have them die in the wilderness?

I know—and the commentators stress the point—that the rebels' motives were decidedly mixed, even if we give them the sympathetic reading that I, echoing a small number of ancient and modern interpreters, have offered. Korah and his family don't like the tasks assigned them in the Levitical hierarchy (transporting sacred vessels, rather than actually offering sacrifices, enjoying access to the holiest precincts, and deciding matters of life and death). As first cousins to Moses and Aaron, they are close enough to appreciate what they do not have and to grab for it.

Datan and Abiram—the other leaders of the rebellion—are rather pathetic when they complain that Moses and Aaron have taken them away from a land flowing with milk and honey (Egypt!) to die in the wilderness. They are Reubenites: descendants of the first-born ancestor who had been displaced in the power structure at some point by Judah, Joseph, and the Levites. They too want a bigger share of whatever goods—and Good—are available. If they cannot get to the Promised Land, at least they can try to secure a better wilderness experience.

The most astonishing passage in the parashah, in my view, is the reaction of the Israelites after God has proven beyond any doubt that Moses really is God's chosen leader. God makes a "new creation": the earth swallows the rebels and their families alive. "Next day the whole Israelite community rallied against Moses and Aaron [again!] saying, 'You two have brought death upon the Lord's people'" (Num. 17:6). Once again God offers to destroy the Israelites and start over; once more Moses and Aaron plead for mercy and stave off the worst. "Lo, we perish!" said the Israelites after the plague has stopped. "We are lost, all of us lost . . . Alas we are doomed to perish" (Num. 17:27–28).

That is true, of course. They will die, and not in the manner or at the time they would have wished. Human beings of every generation are familiar with this problem. It cannot be minimized. The Torah does not often express the terror human beings feel in the face of death as directly as it does in this parashah. Nor does it often advise its readers, as explicitly as it does here, how best to cope with the fact of death, which often comes as an interruption in our journeys toward personal promised lands. What is that recommendation?

Live your life surrounded by the demands and rewards of God's eternal sacred order. Be part of a community that shares life's joys and sorrows with you. Be grateful for the gifts you have. Seek forgiveness for the wrongs you commit. Know the difference between holy and profane, and the distinction—to which it points—between good and evil. Seek to know God, as best a human being can, and imitate God via acts of justice and compassion. Trust in God's enduring mercies.

This counsel is set forth in the books that surround and contain the story of Korah, as the sacred order surrounds and contains fear of death. It is hinted at in the rules governing the division of labor between priests and Levites. Those rules follow immediately on the story of Korah, the Levite who arrogantly sought the prerogatives of priesthood. "You must not profane the sacred donations of the Israelites, lest you die," God instructs Moses to tell the Levites (Num. 18:32). The objective is life, after all: for priests, for Levites, and for all of Israel.

Korah had it wrong: it's not that every Israelite is holy but that we can be. Everything depends on how we use the gifts in our possession, the days at our disposal, and the way of mitzvah that God has marked out with fire, cloud, and Torah to guide us through life's wilderness.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.