Selfish Revolution

Korach and his followers masked their quest for personal power and gain as a desire for an egalitarian, democratic society.

Commentary on Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32, 28:9-15

This week we read the story of Korach, who is traditionally seen as an arch-villain, the archetypal rebel against Moses and Aaron — the ‘establishment’ of the Jewish people. When we look at it carefully, however, Korach’s complaint against the hegemony of Moses 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 Korach’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 Moses, 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?

Korach’s position is also in sync with the suggestion made back at Mount Sinai to Moses by his father-in-law Jethro — 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 Korach, 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 Moses’ response to Korach’s challenge. Although clearly troubled by Korach’s words (the Torah tells us that his first response was to “fall on his face”), Moses 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 Korach 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 Korach suggests, all stand equally before God.

However, in addition to immediately agreeing to put Korach’s claim to the test, Moses also expresses his uneasiness, and his mistrust of Korach. 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?”

Moses’ words are interesting. At first glance, he seems to not get it; Korach presented himself as a champion of equality before God — “the entire community, all of them, are holy” — and Moses is trying to placate him by reminding him that he is in fact a big shot, part of the establishment, a Levite. It would seem that Moses saw through Korach’s claim that he was representing “the entire community” and understood that he was simply out to gain more power for himself; “You also ask for priesthood?” Moses knows that this is what is really hiding behind Korach’s egalitarian spiel: the desire for more personal power.

The Rabbis pick up on Moses’ understanding of Korach’s true motivation, and traditionally discount the seriousness of Korach’s commitment to the “community” and the “congregation,” seeing these claims simply as ploys in his attempt to consolidate more power for himself. This is, of course, a dynamic that, tragically, has played itself out over and over again in any number of 20th century “People’s Republics.”

After telling Korach what he really thinks of him, Moses then sends for Datan and Aviram, the non-Levites, regular Israelite “rank-and-file” supporters of Korach’s rebellion. We will never know what Moses intended to say to them, for they refuse to meet with him, but they damn themselves with their own words: “We will not go up! Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness, that you should rule over and continue to rule over us? You haven’t even taken us to a land flowing with milk and honey to give us an inheritance of field and vineyard?we will not go up!” It seems clear that personal gain — “field and vineyard” — is what they were after.

At this point Moses loses it: “And Moses got very angry and he said to God ‘Do not turn to their offering, not even one donkey of theirs have I taken, I haven’t done anything bad to any one of them.'”

Pretty strange response, eh? And what’s up with the donkey? I think we should compare Moses’ response here with the words of Datan and Aviram and with what Moses says about Korach. They are depicted as wanting, taking, desiring things for themselves — “you also ask for priesthood?” “You haven’t give[n] us an inheritance of field and vineyard?”

Moses’ words make clear the profound gap between them and him — “Not even one donkey of theirs have I taken?”– My relationship with power, leadership, government, has never been about improving my own situation, it has not been about my taking things. (Interestingly, the portion begins with the words “Vayikah Korah” — “and Korach took,” which would seem to summarize his basic mindset.) Therefore, Moses says to God, do not turn to them and their offering, do not choose them, because their understanding of leadership is one that is rooted in self-aggrandizement, in material gain, and is therefore unacceptable.

Tellingly, the Hebrew word for donkey is hamor, similar to the Hebrew word for the physical, the material — homer. If we also remember the reluctance that Moses showed to accept a leadership role, back at the burning bush, while the Jews were still enslaved in Egypt, the differences between what motivates Moses to lead as opposed to Korach could not be clearer.

I would argue that Moses’ unmasking of the true motivations of Korah and his followers leaves open the possibility of a real “people’s revolution,” which seeks a truly egalitarian society. We are however left with the suspicion that those who claim that that is what they are after need to be looked at very carefully, as those high ideals and exalted aims have often (invariably?) masked a raw desire for personal power and gain. Moses’ model of leadership stands in stark distinction to that of Korach and his followers, stemming as it does from a desire to help those who need it, rather than from personal considerations of profit, loss, and position.

Reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.


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