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Why Did Korah Rebel?

The tale of Korah’s rebellion at the beginning of this eponymous parsha is so compelling, that we are usually distracted from either delving farther in to its subsequent passages, or, more significantly, from questioning the rectitude of its outcome.

Never mind that there were at least two other rebellious figures – Datan and Abiram – challenging Moses’s leadership, or that Korah was actually more concerned with Aaron and his levitical/priestly privileges. How quickly we forget that Aaron, Miriam, and indeed the entire people were complaining about Moses not that long before [Parshat Beha’alotecha; Numbers 11-12]! The name Korah has become synonymous with that of a bitter complainant, whose subsequent punishment was richly deserved.

Briefly, the story line commences with this succinct verbal gauntlet thrown at Moses, and at Aaron: “You have too much [power]! The entire community are holy, all of them, and Adonay is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonay’s assemblage?” [16:3]

The story’s climax – rather, a series of climaxes – comes after Moses tries unsuccessfully to placate the challengers. Many were swallowed up and buried in the earth by a supernatural force. Other were consumed by fire. The broader community then picked up the rallying cry, saying to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought death upon Adonay’s people” [17:6], in effect, now look what you two have done! They then try to placate Adonay’s anger at the people, which descended in the form of a devastating plague that consumed over 14,000 before Aaron was able to mitigate the disaster.

The denouement sneaks in through the next passage. The parsha blithely proceeds by examining priestly and levitical responsibilities, internally re-asserting – according to many rabbinic commentators – the correct order. Of twelve tribal staffs that had been placed in and then removed from the Tent of Meeting, Aaron’s, representing the Levites, burst forth with almond blossoms. The Divine response is as succinct as the initial challenge: “Put Aaron’s staff back in front of the gathering; let this be a lesson to the rebels, so that their grumblings come to an end, and that they not die.” [17:25]

The rabbis, in trying to fill in some of the gaps in the story, notably the lack of explanation for Korah’s motives, imagine him challenging Moses to a halakhic duel, debating the laws of ritual fringes, or the declaration of a person to be ritually clean. In the context of this latter discussion, they have Korah declaring: “The Torah is not from Heaven; Moses is not His prophet nor Aaron his priest.” [PT San 10:27d-28a]

This phrase is instantly evocative of another Talmudic passage, in which R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is prevailing in a halakhic debate, calls upon the heavens to prove that he is right. As in the Korah tale, supernatural manifestations occur. A carob tree is uprooted, and flies about. A river flows backwards. The very walls of the beit midrash are caused to slant dangerously. Even a bat kol cries out, assailing those who would challenge R. Eliezer’s indisputable halakhic authority.

Here, one of the challengers, undaunted by the voice from heaven, stands up and quotes a similar sentiment to that attributed to Korah: “The Torah is not in heaven, and we pay no attention to a divine voice.” [BT BM 59a] Yet R. Eliezer is punished with excommunication, despite the rectitude of his assertions.

R. Eliezer lives in the rabbinic imagination as a revered figure, and source of many teachings recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud. His original status as a teacher seems to protect his legacy. Korah, on the other hand, enters the rabbinic imagination as a suspicious whistle-blower.

Yes, they concede, he was a man of great subtlety. He knew and used Torah well to gain a foothold, and challenge prevailing wisdom. He had also been passed over for leadership within his own family. [Num. R. 18:2]

These traits sound like components of an excellent character profile to describe the kinds of person one would want working within a large system, like a corporate or government hierarchy: someone with a mission to prod at complacency, call attention to issues, and, at the risk of censure and punishment, call the authorities to account.

Whistle-blowers like Korah don’t tend to fare too well these days either. Those who call our attention to endemic racism still suffer economically through the lack of promotions and other limitations; corporate truth-sayers find themselves challenged with personal lawsuits; others are ostracized from their communities, and within their families.

Perhaps the story of this rebellion, complex thought it may be, offers a simple teaching about our basic freedom to challenge authority and redress injustice wherever we may find it.

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