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Torah Commentary
Korach (July 9, 2016)

Sherry Nehmer,


Quality of life diminishing? Have a sense that we’ve lost our way? Those in power not listening to you? Blame the current leadership, and try to take over. Sounds like an election year to me.

In fact, it’s the Book of Numbers, and it’s the story of Korach.

Turn on your TV, your radio, your computer or phone today and it’s all too easy to encounter impassioned discussion about who is out to get us. Politicians, newscasters, special interest groups and sometimes even our own Facebook friends shriek at us about threats from outside our borders.

It’s certainly true that there are fanatics out there in the world who wish us harm, whether for our national origin, sexual orientation, religion — any number of reasons. But it’s not just groups from faraway places, organized or otherwise, who pose a threat. What if the danger comes from within? And what if it’s not a fringe dweller with a rifle or a bomb but a high-ranking member of society harboring a lust for power, a sense of entitlement and an unchecked ego? Such a combination might pose a danger not just to us but to the entire world.

Korach’s is one such ego. First cousin to Moses and Aaron, he leads a group of 250 malcontents to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership, demanding that he and his followers share in the power. What makes Moses so special, Korach asks, or gives Aaron the right to hog all the priestly duties and benefits? “Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

This challenge by the rebels, this demand for an increase in their own status, comes at a time when the Israelites are at a new low, growing more discontented by the moment. Because of their own lack of faith, God will prevent the current generation from ever reaching the Promised Land. Korach and his fellow rebel chieftains, Dathan and Abiram, seethe in the midst of a people already uneasy. But to get through the trying times, cohesiveness is what is needed, not divisiveness. Korach and his followers are an infection, one that Moses knows must be excised before it spreads.

Korach may feel entitled, but in truth his motives are hard to ignore. The Israelites traverse the desert, eating sparsely, remembering the lushness of Egypt, no end to their wanderings in sight. It’s hard to dismiss his conclusion that a change of leadership would improve their lot. Of course, his plan is entirely self-serving, as he, Korach, would be that leader!

Were Moses alone dealing with the rebels, perhaps we might have seen a series of debates, a filibuster or two and in the end some compromises — or, on the other extreme, fist fights and general mayhem in a war between the tribes. Maybe in the end Korach’s group might have succeeded in overthrowing the status quo. But Korach has done more than offend Moses; he has affronted God. Unfortunately for him, his plans would upset the order God has imposed. And God does not compromise.

The punishment is terrifying and swift — the earth swallows Korach and the leaders of his rebellion, plus their families, and a holy fire consumes their followers. (There is an interesting comment in the midst of all this destruction; Moses assures the rest of the gathering that if these rebels die in an extraordinary manner, it’s proof that he, Moses, did not do it, but that it was the will of God. Moses passes the buck to God; the buck stops there.)

So what are we to make of the thwarted rebellion of Korach? By challenging Moses’ leadership and, more important, the will of God, Korach has created a standoff that halts the Israelites in their tracks. Would such a person, filled with resentment and entitlement, be the kind of leader obedient to God, capable of making choices that are not self-serving? Would he be able to face the challenges Moses has faced and keep his people together and safe?

Korach seems to be a person consumed with ambition. Whether or not you find his punishment too extreme for his crime, it does make you think; while we spend time worrying about the outsiders who may or may not be out to get us, perhaps we should turn our attention to those among us who crave power, whose motives may not be the betterment of the people but the aggrandizement of themselves. It’s something as important today as it was in biblical times, and it bears notice and reflection.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

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