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Torah Commentary
Korach (June 23, 2012)

Leah Kadosh, Coordinator of School and Family Learning

PARASHAT KORACH, named for only one of the four infamous antagonists described in this week’s portion, continues right where last week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, left off: The Israelites are condemned to wander the desert for 40 years, ensuring that the adult generation will die before reaching the Promised Land. The Israelites, already having committed sins of idolatry, disloyalty, ungratefulness and unfaithfulness, naturally are displeased with their ultimate punishment and immediately appeal with an apology. Moses does not even consult with God on behalf of the Israelites and answers them simply by asking them why they continue to disobey God. The punishment will not (not cannot) be revoked. With the initial choice of apology overturned, we read of option two: rebellion with a desired change of leadership. Korach (Moses and Aaron’s first cousin), Dathan and Abiram gather 250 chieftains (highly respected Israelites) and proceed to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership.

Biblical scholar and commentator Nili S. Fox argues that there are two narratives woven together in this parashah, the first concerning Korach as a Levite demanding the same privileges as the cohanim (priests) and the second describing Dathan and Abiram, who question Moses’ capabilities as a leader. Fox points out that in both cases, the challengers suffer divine wrath in elaborate reversal death. Moses tests Korach’s 250 chieftains’ knowledge of priestly duties, and they instantly are consumed by fire when they perform the given task incorrectly. (Numbers 16:35) Dathan and Abiram, in addition to their families and followers, are ready to rise up to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:19) and instantly are swallowed alive by the ground beneath them. (Numbers 16:31) God squashes potential revolutions before they can begin, and life for the common Israelite continues in the wilderness.

Upon an initial reading, one is tempted to interpret this portion as one that dissuades the questioning or challenging of our leaders. After all, the people guilty of voicing their opinions are obliterated graphically right before the eyes of the entire community of Israel. Upon a closer study of the text, however, a second interpretation may be offered: Parashat Korach does not discourage the reader from challenging authority but, rather, instructs us how to negotiate properly and effectively with our leaders. Korach, already a member of the Levite tribe, along with Dathan and Abiram, publicly denounces Moses and Aaron, and brings 250 chieftains ready for rebellion. Threatening a leader before his or her community only would incite defensive behavior on the leader’s part and cause one to act harshly and quickly, with the hope of preventing rebellion and chaos. Had Korach simply approached his cousins in private and explained his needs and concerns, death may have been avoided.

A model of an effective way to challenge one’s superior actually is provided in this portion. After Korach collects and influences the entire Israelite population to go against Moses and Aaron, God instructs Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from “this community, that God may annihilate them in an instant!” (Numbers 16:21) Immediately, the brothers prostrate themselves before God and plea on behalf of the fate of Israel. God in turn, changes the decree and annihilates only those guilty and associated with rebellious behavior. Showing respect for God as Creator and Source of Life, Moses and Aaron are not threatening or challenging in their question of God’s actions but rather are humbling and reverent. Moses proves to Korach, Dathan and Abiram, as well as to the contemporary reader, that one can negotiate with God in the correct forum and manner.

One further detail is in need of exploration. At this point, readers of Torah may be feeling a bit unsettled by the ultimate punishment of the Israelite adults described in last week’s parashah. However, their concerns are addressed and calmed in Parashat Korach. Even after witnessing God’s power and superhuman actions in the immediate deaths of the rebels, the Israelites continue to fail to acknowledge God as Ruler and Doer. The day after the events occur, the entire population approaches Moses and Aaron and exclaims, “You two have brought death upon the LORD’s people!” (Numbers 17:6) After having witnessed extraordinary events, impossible by human hands, the Israelites cannot seem to recognize that God is behind the rebels’ punishment, and instead, they blame their human leaders. This reaction confirms that a new generation of Israelites must settle the Promised Land, and indeed God’s communal punishment is one that will ensure the beginning of belief, loyalty and devotion among the new population.

Parashat Korach emphasizes that sometimes it is in the way we handle situations that lead to unsuccessful results, and the simple lack of faith prevented the first generation of newly freed Israelites from reaching the land flowing with milk and honey. The failings of the Israelites teach us to learn from their mistakes, for their ancient misdeeds are relevant and didactic in our modern times.


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