The Desire for Power

Korah By :  Jonathan Milgram Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Jun 27, 2009 / 5769 | Torah Commentary

This week’s Torah reading, Korah, has a central theme: encroachment on the Tabernacle and its related punishments. No fewer than four separate uprisings are recorded in our reading, all associated with Korah: (1) the Levites against Aaron and Moses, (2) Dathan and Aviram against Moses, (3) the heads of the tribes against Aaron, and (4) the whole community against Moses and Aaron. The punishments for at least two of these rebellions are clearly documented: Dathan and Aviram are swallowed up by the ground and the tribal leaders are burned by a divinely sent fire. Korah’s fate, however, is not as clearly stated. It may be that he dies with the tribal heads or that he is consumed by the earth with Dathan and Aviram.

The reading opens with Korah’s attack, coupled with his asking a question: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Although Korah’s tone is less than amicable, his question would seem to be well-placed. Why should only a certain class of people be considered greater than others, if all are holy in the eyes of God? In the words of the great medieval French commentator Rashi (eleventh to twelfth centuries), himself quoting the midrash, “all the congregation are holy—they all heard the utterances on Sinai from the mouth of God . . . it is not you alone who have heard at Sinai: ‘I am the Lord your God,’ all the congregation heard it!” For Korah, witnessing God’s revelation is the ultimate equalizer. Anyone present at that moment should be on equal footing with Moses and Aaron, for they too are holy. Korah’s specific use of the word “holy” is important here since the avid weekly Torah reader will note that at the end of last week’s reading God commands the entire population to don fringes, tzitzit, so they “shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.” So it would seem there is an intrinsic holiness to all of God’s children. Korah has support for his contention! And yet, punishment is meted out for this challenge.

In truth, the continuation of our reading shows that Korah’s objections are not justified, even if all of God’s children are intrinsically holy. For God’s revelation also revealed that there was a hierarchy, and that hierarchy determined that Moses and Aaron were to serve as the leadership. This is implied in Moses’s words to Korah, “Truly, it is against the Lord that you and your company have banded together” (Num. 16:11; cf. Rashi’s commentary to the verse). Through this statement, therefore, Korah’s point—that all are equally qualified to lead due to having been present at the Sinaitic revelation—is refuted. As far as leadership is concerned, all are not the same, leaders are assigned and designated, and Korah and his band cannot uproot their appointments. Their attempts, through rebellion, are undone by divine retribution.

Korah’s demand that even he and his band should be empowered to lead is not only unrealistic but an affront to the divine order. The legitimate leaders appointed by Heaven cannot be challenged; it is they who will carry out the mission according to the divine assignment. Korah’s failed attempt is a reminder that the divine order is not easily adjusted, and that Moses and Aaron’s leadership—even if flawed at times—was in place for a purpose and designated from on high.

A closer look at Korah’s complaint in light of his communal status reveals his thirst for power. As a Levite, his status compared to others was already elevated. He already assisted “common” Israelites with the preparations of their sacrifices and participated in the guard duty of the Tabernacle (see Numbers 3:7). His lust for more power, therefore, is that much more unbecoming. Indeed, had the character of Korah been a simple Israelite, the force of his power-hungry personality would not be as evident.

In sum, Korah teaches us about the characteristic personality flaw of the powerful: the desire for more power. His overwhelming impulse to gain more power not only leads him to challenge the human establishment but even to fly in the face of the divine decree from which the establishment emanates. Korah’s character reminds us that the pursuit of power and control for their own sake, even when seemingly well-founded, can be corrupt and even an affront to the Divine.

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