The story of Korach read this past Shabat is perhaps more relevant today than any of the portions of Numbers read in the last 4-6 weeks. The story is also simple. The interpretations and implications are not.
Korach, a great grandson of Levi with an impeccable priestly heritage, organizes an elite protest of 250 elders of repute chosen by the assembly to confront Moses, not Aaron. But that is not how the narrator describes the action. The dissent is characterized as “rising up,” “combining against” Moses and Aaron. Not a petition. Not a protest. Not even a confrontation. The action is described by the narrator as a rebellion. And commentators generally agree.
Yet, there are no arms involved. There is no claim that Korach and his fellow priestly complainants would refuse to follow Moses’ instructions. Or even that they wanted to remove Aaron from his role as High Priest, though the implication may be that they wanted at least parity with Aaron who, on appearance, received his appointment through nepotism.
How does Moses handle the protest? Initially by a technique with which we are all familiar through the behaviour of Donald Trump – by distraction. Moses insists that the issue is one of the right of access to God, not parity among Israelites or even priests. More significantly, Moses, when confronted by another pair of dissidents, suggests that the protesters are accusing him of corruption when they have said nothing about Moses taking money or bribes. Finally, Moses insists that they are not just complaining about Aaron’s supreme authority in matters of worship, but they are in rebellion against God. What appears initially as a claim about status and parity has now been characterized by Moses as a challenge to the authority of God Himself.
How is the matter settled? By a duel. By a duel of frying pans.
|במדבר טז:ו זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת… טז:זוּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הוָה הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ…||Num 16:6 Do this: take fire-pans… 16:7 and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before YHWH. Then the man whom YHWH chooses, he shall be the holy one…|
Who wins? Moses. How? By the same fate that met Aaron’s two eldest sons when they erred in how the fire pans were to be used. Korach’s 250 other protesters were incinerated by a divine fire. The other challengers to Moses’ political performance, rather than opposition against a priestly hierarchy, (still to be described), were all swallowed up by the earth rather than incinerated. Yet Korach and his followers in asking for parity did not indicate that they were challenging Aaron’s (and his descendants’) exclusive right to use fire pans to burn incense before the Lord at the High Altar. Except perhaps by implication. For they were questioning Moses’ claim of exclusive access to the word of God and Aaron’s reciprocal exclusionary role in the human worship of that same God.
Questioning Moses’ and Aaron’s claims for exclusionary status became a high crime worthy of instant death. As a result, never again could a Levite, let alone an ordinary Israelite, challenge the authority of the High Priest. From then on, the Holy of Holies was even more off limits to other Levite priests as well as ordinary Israelites. The Levites would retain their exclusive duties regarding the Tent of Meeting, but only Aaron and his descendants, the High Priest among the priesthood, would be responsible for the furnishings of the Shrine and the altar. The other Levites were permanently demoted.
|וְלֹא יִקְרְב֥וּ ע֛וֹד בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד לָשֵׂ֥את חֵ֖טְא לָמֽוּת:||Henceforth, Israelites shall not trespass on the Tent of Meeting, and thus incur guilt and die.[18:22]|
How and why did a democratically authorized complaint rise to treason worthy of capital punishment without any right of appeal? And, most interestingly, why was Korach not himself incinerated or swallowed up by the earth? After all, he led the protest. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (17:32) All Korach’s people. And all their property. But not Korach himself.
But the text appears contradictory. For later it is written that Korach, though not incinerated, was swallowed up; instead of being consumed by fire instantly, he was buried alive. Further, his sons were excluded from this capital punishment. “Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach.” The fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men—and they became an example. “The sons of Korach, however, did not die.” (Numbers 26:10-12)
Deuteronomy (11:6) even suggests that Korach was not part of the rebellion even though he was a leader of the protest. For of the leadership, only Dathan and Abiram, sons of Reuben, were destroyed by burial. (See also Psalm 106) As was Korach. Numbers 17:5 states unequivocally that Korach did die in depicting the culmination of the duel of the frying pans that were to be hammered to decorate the high altar as a reminder of what happens to traitors, But the text does not say there how he died; it appears that he, unlike the other priests, unlike the eldest sons of Aaron who were consumed by fire, was swallowed up by the earth. So he, like Dathan and Abiram, was delivered to a dastardly death.
The text becomes even more confusing when the protest and consequence of Korach’s so called co-conspirators are described. Whereas Korach addressed Moses with the complaint, Dahlan and Abiram, Reubenites rather than Levites, with no complaints about parity in priestly duties, went further. After all, they were descendants of the first born. They would not even talk to Moses. They would not obey his summons. “Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” (16:14)
Dahlan and Abiram also seemed more aware of the fate that awaited them as a result of the disagreement. And they seemed to be even more incensed at the extreme response to a verbal or a silent protest of civil disobedience than even the issue of status at the centre of the Korach dispute. Further, the problem was not simply that Moses as a leader had failed thus far to bring them to a land of milk and honey and/or had not settled them on farms or vineyards, (or, if you rely on the new criticism, that Moses indeed had taken them from the wilderness and settled them in a fertile land, but one that required strenuous farming labour as opposed to a land flowing with milk and honey), but that Moses was a tyrant in gouging out the eyes of protesters.
As a result, the Reubenites as a whole were not simply demoted as Reuben had once been; they ultimately disappeared as a tribe. Like their primal ancestor, Reuben, who had slept with Bilah, his father Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), the Reubenites now were also accused of usurping power and authority, though there is no evidence in the text that they did anything more than disobey, and not simply express their dissatisfaction with the state of events.
To the style and substance of the protest of the Reubenites, Moses was even far more defensive and much more deeply involved in the political art of distraction. Though Dahlan and Abiram never accused Moses of any crime, Moses proclaimed his innocence. He not only had never taken a bribe, but he had not asked for any support from the community to pay for his leadership. Like Trump, he never drew a salary. He had not so much as taken a donkey, the same defence that the Prophet Samuel offered in the Haftorah reading this past Shabat (I Samuel 12:3). Moses and Samuel both claimed that they had played a benign role and had not been either exploitive or self-interested.
What is going on? What was the high crime worthy of a punishment of death? And why the discrimination concerning the penalties meted out?
Before I turn to Korach as well as the protest of Dahlan and Abiram, I want to zero in on Moses’ behaviour more intensely. But it is first important to put forth the dominant interpretation of the text, namely, that Korach was a rebel deserving of punishment and that Moses, whatever his failings, was a blessed and great leader of his people. This is not a view restricted to the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox but is one shared by many if not most Reform interpreters.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow writes, “In Korach, we learn of a tribal leader who believes he is equal to – and is jealous of – Moses. The portion reminds us to look within and see where we are on the spectrum of humility and arrogance, and on the scale of selfishness and selflessness.” There is no reference in the text to Korach being motivated by jealousy. That is an interpolation. Korach does not believe he is equal to Moses, but does initiate a discussion of priestly parity rather than democratic politics, though the text makes clear that Korach observed democratic niceties and made sure that the 250 selected to join him were chosen by the assembly. Finally, by loading the dice in making the political issue one of psychology, and a narrow band at that, the comparison clearly seems, on the surface at least, to favour Moses over Korach.
“Arrogance is comparing yourself to other people, and humility is comparing yourself to yourself.” Korach does the former; Moses does the latter. Case closed! Dena Weiss, citing Rav Kook, insists that the political claim and the psychological portraits are linked.
Korach does not insist that he is the greatest. He does not even, in fact, compare himself to others except in the sense of asking for ritual parity – a religious-political rather than psychological claim. We are all equal before God. He offers an argument against superiority. Moses, though he fell on his face on hearing the petition, does not exhibit humility either, even in the sense of insisting that he is simply being true to himself. Instead, Moses proposes a duel, the duel of the frying pans, as a proof of who has been chosen by God as God’s messenger. Moses seems self-assured of victory.
“Korah’s claim is that Moshe and Aharon are monopolizing the available leadership roles in a way that is not justified. All of the people are holy and worthy of serving God, yet Moshe and Aharon are in the positions that are most prominent and most proximate to God. Moshe demonstrates that he and Aharon are both suited to their roles and chosen by God, and his response highlights what it is about his character that makes him so deserving. Moshe’s reaction teaches us what it means to truly serve God with wisdom and humility, whatever your role is and whatever your talents may be.
“Moshe never responds to Korah on Korah’s own terms. Korah wants Moshe to justify a claim that Moshe is better, but Moshe will not. Moshe’s concern is to demonstrate that he is intrinsically worthy. He devises a test to legitimate Aharon’s right to be the Kohen Gadol, by having all of the pretenders to the priesthood offer incense alongside Aharon. When God chooses Aharon in this test, the choice of Aharon will be vindicated.”
Weiss claims that the superiority of Moses is demonstrated by both his accomplishments and his humility in refusing to compare himself to Korach. Instead, Moses “shows the importance of holding oneself to an absolute standard. He isn’t less corrupt than other politicians; he is simply not corrupt. He isn’t better than his competition; he is just objectively good. He looks only at his own behavior and evaluates it on its own terms.”
However, Weiss does admit that the examples Moses offers are both underwhelming and strange. What does a claim of non-corruption have to do with Korach’s request that equality among priests be discussed? Is Moses like Trump, making a claim that he is already so wealthy he does not need to be corrupt? Further, to be wealthy is to prove yourself worthy. However, a statement about one’s wealth is inherently comparative, undermining the claim of humility based on a refusal to engage in comparison. But, the rebuttal goes: the issue of wealth or poverty, humility of character rather than humility of circumstances, is what counts. The latter is relational and situational. The former is absolute.
“(T)he humility of someone who is weak, impoverished, and unlettered can’t be compared to the humility of one who is strong, wealthy, smart, and even tall. For the first one’s humility comes to him naturally on account of his lowliness, whereas for the second, his soul’s advantages and his own talents awaken a spirit of arrogance in him and inspire him to step on the heads of the people beneath him.”
Trump, on the other hand, is both a man of great wealth but not the least bit modest. Moses, in comparison, is a model of humility, not because he believes he is undeserving or has accomplished little, but because he measures himself against an absolute standard. Is he the best he could be in his own eyes? In God’s eyes?
Does the text support the claim that this is really not a political battle but a clash about virtue, a fight between the merits of arrogant leadership, even if rooted in popular support, versus “true” modesty even if running against popular will?
With the help of Alex Zisman