Finding Ourselves Through Others

What are the consequences, or even the possibility, of separating ourselves from our communities, like Korach did?

Commentary on Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1 - 18:32


  • Korach and his followers, Dathan and Abiram, lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God punishes the rebels by burying them and their families alive. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. (16:1-17:15)
  • The chief of each tribe deposits his staff inside the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff brings forth sprouts, produces blossoms, and bears almonds. (17:16-26)
  • The Kohanim and Levites are established and assigned the responsibility of managing the donations to the Sanctuary. All of the firstborn offerings shall go to the priests and all the tithes are designated for the Levites in return for the services they perform. (18:1-32)

Focal Point

Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

Your Guide

Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of lifting themselves up above the community. Didn’t Korach do the same thing when he “betook himself to rise up against Moses?”

We each exist in a number of communities–at home, in the workplace, in school, and in our congregation. When do we remain a part of the community and when do we separate ourselves from the community?

Do our responsibilities to our families conflict at times with our responsibilities to our communities? How?

By the Way…

“It is not at first with our own hands that we pick the acorns and apples from the commonwealth of nature to nourish our own bodies. It is the hands of other people that supply the needs of our bodies, both in our infancy and beyond. For each of us lives in and through an immense movement of the hands of other people. The hands of other people lift us from the womb. The hands of other people grow the food that we eat, weave the clothes that we wear, and build the shelters that we inhabit. The hands of other people give pleasure to our bodies in moments of passion and aid and comfort in times of affliction and distress. It is in and through the hands of other people that the commonwealth of nature is appropriated and accommodated to the needs and pleasures of our separate, individual lives, and, at the end, it is the hands of other people that lower us into the earth.” (James Stockinger, as cited by Robert Bellah in The Good Society, p. 104)

“Now Korach ‘betook himself'” [Numbers 16:1]. There is no taking other than in the language of separation, that is, he took his heart, as the matter is explained in Job, where it says, “Why does your heart carry you away? And why do your eyes wink?” [Job 15:12] (Tanchuma, chapter on Korach).

“They combined together against Moses and Aaron” [Numbers 16:3]. Korah said to them, “‘For all of the congregation are holy, all of them’ [Numbers 16:3], and they have all heard at Sinai the commandment ‘I Adonai am your God’ [Exodus 20:2]. ‘Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?’ [Numbers 16:3]. If you alone had heard it while they had not, you could have claimed superiority” (Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 18:6).

“Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” (Immanuel Kant, Idee zu Einer Allgemeinen Geschichte in Weltburgerlicher Abischt, 1784)

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked Elijah: “When will the Messiah come?” “Go and ask him yourself,” was Elijah’s reply. “Where is he sitting?” “At the entrance to Rome.” “How will I recognize him?” “He is sitting among the poor lepers. All of them untie and tie [their bandages] at one time, whereas he unties and rebandages each sore one at a time. He says, ‘Perhaps I will be needed, and I must not be delayed.'” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)

Your Guide

What does Stockinger teach us about independence and interdependence? Do Korah’s actions demonstrate that he values the importance of interdependence?

Do you agree with the passage from Tanchuma that states Korah “took his heart?” Can you think of a time when you separated yourself or “took your heart” away? What were the consequences?

According to Midrash Rabbah, what is Korah’s chief objection to Moses and Aaron? Do you agree with this interpretation? Why?

What does the text by Kant tell us about the nature of human beings in general and Korah in particular? If Kant is right, should Korah be held responsible for his actions?


Judaism teaches that we are responsible for the choices we make and therefore are the leaders of our own lives. Our children — the next generation — will take the words and the teachings we bequeath to them and will experience them in their own time, in a world and culture that we cannot imagine. In that world our children will take the responsibility for leading their own lives and, if they are blessed, will establish effective partnerships and families.

The challenges of taking leadership in our own lives are demonstrated in the rabbinic understanding of the struggles between Moses and Aaron on the one side and Korach on the other. Considering this Torah portion, our Rabbis ask, “What is the meaning of the words ‘Korach betook?'” They answer, “He betook himself.” That’s what we all do. We take ourselves through our daily lives.

Yet our rabbinic tradition implies that Korach’s taking of himself reached a new level. In challenging Moses and Aaron, he raised himself above his followers while accusing Moses and Aaron of that very same offense. In reaction to Korach’s revolt, perhaps Moses fell on his face to emphasize his recognition that, despite his exalted status, we are all equal, with none either superior of inferior to another.

Like Moses, we realize that we can’t easily separate ourselves from those who are part of our lives. For example, we cannot separate ourselves from our families: We are both dependent on them and interdependent with them. While it is our responsibility to teach our children, we also need to learn from them. Perhaps on Shabbat, sitting there among the knives and the forks, the food and the candlesticks, we can learn to enrich and enhance one another. We can learn all the elements of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery, kindness, generosity, admiration, enthusiasm, loyalty, joy, love, and hope. In doing so, we become dependent on those around us even when we seek to lead them.

Our Rabbis teach what it means to be an effective leader when they ask, “Where shall we find the Leader of Leaders?” According to Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a, the Messiah can be found at the gates of the city, bandaging the hands of lepers, reducing their suffering. The Messiah does not separate himself from the community; rather, he identifies with the community of those who cannot help themselves. The Talmud teaches that we find ourselves as leaders through service to others.

As we, the crooked timber of humanity, strive to lead our daily lives, struggling to become more wholesome and decent, let us take the example of this Torah portion to heart and be reminded of the consequences of separating ourselves, like Korach, and of the virtues of remaining one with the community, like Moses and Aaron.

Reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.

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