Korah and his followers masked their quest for personal power and gain as a desire for an egalitarian, democratic society.
The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.
This week we read the story of Korah, who is traditionally seen as an arch-villain, the archetypal rebel against Moshe and Aharon--the 'establishment' of the Jewish people. When we look at it carefully, however, Korah's complaint against the hegemony of Moshe and his brother, who between them and other members of their family run the entire show in the desert--has a compelling ring to it: "You've taken too much! For the entire community, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. Why should you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God?"
The complaint, to our ears at least, has a lot going for it. What is wrong with Korah's desire for a more equitable division of power, which would involve and enfranchise "the entire community?" Would that not be a good thing? Does it not flow naturally from the democratizing tendencies we saw manifested a few weeks ago when Moshe, under attack from the people, delegated power to 70 elders, in an attempt to take some of the pressure off of himself, and involve others in the effort of governing and leading the nation?
Korah's position is also in synch with the suggestion made back at Mount Sinai to Moshe by his father-in-law Yitro--that he not judge the people by himself, but rather that he should establish a court system, whereby thousands of judges share the load with him. Is not Korah, who was himself a Levite and therefore part of the power elite, asking for the most basic of democratic principles--a fully participatory democracy, in which everyone is an equal partner? And if he is, why is he punished so horribly, by having the earth swallow up him and his followers?
I think the answer to these questions is apparent both in the Biblical text and in the rabbinic literature that embellishes it. Let's take a look at Moshe's response to Korah's challenge. Although clearly troubled by Korah's words (the Torah tells us that his first response was to "fall on his face"), Moshe seems willing to accept the possibility that he is not God's only chosen leader, and that, perhaps, the entire nation IS equally holy.
He therefore suggests a test--let Korah and his followers bring incense offerings to God. If they are accepted, then his claim will be substantiated--it will have been made clear that we are all, in fact, equally holy, equally chosen, and that we therefore should, as Korah suggests, all stand equally before God.
However, in addition to immediately agreeing to put Korah's claim to the test, Moshe also expresses his uneasiness, and his mistrust of Korah. This is what he says: "Is it but a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the community of Israel to bring you near to him, to do the work in the Tabernacle of God and to stand before the congregation to serve them? He has brought you and all your brothers the sons of Levi near, and you also ask for priesthood?"