D’var Torah: Korach

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 2 July 2016

Poor Korach – he certainly gets a bad press in the Torah and in subsequent Jewish teaching. He’s been demonised, made into the exemplar of the arrogant, ambitious, self-seeker after power. He challenges the authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron on spurious grounds. Finally he and his followers are swallowed up when the ground opens under them. And yet, later on, we read that Korach’s sons survived the catastrophe (Numbers 26:11); indeed some of them went on to have Psalms ascribed to them.(eg Psalm 42)

The fact that a trace, as it were, of Korach survives leaves us with the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t entirely wrong in his claim. Last Shabbat, at the episode of the spies, the people clamour to return to Egypt – calling into very question the whole Exodus venture. Then it was the tribal leaders who were the rebels; this time it’s more dangerous; Korach is Moses’ cousin, he’s mishpocheh – a palace coup is in the offing. It’s all very close to home and maybe the reaction to Korach is as it is because he’s challenging the establishment and establishments are sensitive to questioning and criticism.

Our sidra begins with Hebrew which is dense and cryptic. Vayikach Korach “and Korach took…” but we’re not told what he took. Rav lachem, he says to Moses, you have gone too far. “All the congregation are holy and God is in their midst. Why, then, do you raise yourselves above God’s community?” (Numbers 16:3.)

In its usual marvellously-imaginative way, midrash elaborates on the terseness of the Torah account. One even has Korach suggesting that Moses, as it were, ‘invented’ God as a useful device to legitimate his, Moses’, authority. (Numbers Rabbah 18:10)

Another midrash connects Korach’s rebellion with the final verses of last Shabbat’s sidra, which we know as the 3rd paragraph of the Shema, about putting tsitsit, fringes on the corners of our garments, with a thread of blue among them. “A tallit has to have a thread of blue. “What if I have a completely blue tallit,” Korach asks provocatively, “do I still need a special blue thread? A Torah scroll contains the text we have in a mezuzah. So if I have a number of Torah scrolls in my house,” he asks, “do I still need a mezuzah on the door?” No, please don’t ask how the Israelites in the desert had doors which needed mezuzzot or Torah scrolls come to that! (Tanchuma, Korach 4; Numbers Rabbah 18:3)

Korach raises apparent contradictions to see if Moses can answer them. And presumably he does so to cast doubts on Moses’ religious credentials for leading the people. And with his claim that all the community are holy, he’s accusing Moses of going too far in the exercise of his authority. Rav lachem “you’ve exceeded the limits.” If we are, indeed, all holy, why should you have particular authority over us?

Moses throws the gauntlet down to Korach with a test for him and his supporters. He accuses them of doing just what Korach has accused him of. Indeed he throws Korach’s words back in his face: rav lachem, “you take too much on yourself.” (Numbers 16:7) You’re the one, Korach, to have exceeded the limits, not me. In good Biblical fashion, the rebels fail the test, the grounds opens and swallows them up. (Numbers 16:32)

Conclusive proof, surely, that Korach was wrong – or is it?

But what are the limits? On the face of it, Korach wanted to democratise religious leadership, arguing that Moses doesn’t have a monopoly on holiness. Most of the commentaries say that the problem with Korach is that his motives weren’t pure. His branch of the Levi family hadn’t been chosen to be priests (Tanchuma Korach 3.) He felt slighted and angry and wanted power for himself. But recognising that it would be too crude to put it like that, he dresses it up, presenting himself as the champion of the people against an entrenched establishment. Whatever justice or truth there might have been in his claim, it wasn’t l’shem shamayim, ‘for the sake of heaven.’ Korach’s misdemeanour, then, was self-interest dressed-up as concern for the people. He didn’t act out of purity of motive – though with a post-Freudian knowledge and understanding of the working of the unconscious, can there ever be anything like a totally pure motive devoid of any trace of self-interest?

Is that why Korach’s name isn’t completely lost? His questions might be hard ones, and even if they are motivated by self-interest, they might still be valid and worth preserving.

For what is his claim? If we are all holy, then where does religious authority lie? Maybe the midrash has Korach ask his nonsensical questions about tsitsit and mezuzah not to mock Moses’ authority but to remind him, Moses, not to lose sight of the broader vision.

At one level, Korach’s wrongdoing was to say that all the community are holy. It’s true, in the book of Exodus, God says to the people,you shall be a mamlechet cohanim v’goy kadosh, ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6) That’s what we are to become – but we’re not there yet. Korach did a verbal sleight of hand: claiming that future potential was actually current reality. His was a sort of religious complacency, which is very dangerous: if you believe that you’ve arrived, that you’ve made it, that you are holy, then there’s no need for continued striving to reach some degree of holiness – and holiness may always be just beyond our grasp.

Holiness doesn’t come easily, but in small incremental steps. We will be a holy nation, but we’re not quite there yet!