Part III – Was Moses Full of Himself? Parashat Korach (פרשת קורח) (Numbers 16:1 – 17:15)

In order to understand the “rebellion” of Korach better, my last blog traced the portrait of Moses as a so-called “humble” but challenged leader who rested that leadership on exclusive access to the word of God. The guest commentator at Torah study this past Shabat focused on the charge that Moses had gone “too far.” In response to that charge, Moses replies that it is Korach and his fellow protesters who have gone “too far.” What does the charge of going “too far,” of רַב-לָכֶם mean?

א  וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, בֶּן-יִצְהָר בֶּן-קְהָת בֶּן-לֵוִי; וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן-פֶּלֶת–בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. 1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men;
ב  וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם, נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד, אַנְשֵׁי-שֵׁם. 2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;
ג  וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם–כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל יְהוָה. 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’
ד  וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-פָּנָיו. 4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face.
ה  וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-קֹרַח וְאֶל-כָּל-עֲדָתוֹ, לֵאמֹר, בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע יְהוָה אֶת-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ וְאֶת-הַקָּדוֹשׁ, וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר-בּוֹ, יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו. 5 And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the LORD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him.
ו  זֹאת, עֲשׂוּ:  קְחוּ-לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת, קֹרַח וְכָל-עֲדָתוֹ. 6 This do: take you censors, Korah, and all his company;
ז  וּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, מָחָר, וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה, הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ; רַב-לָכֶם, בְּנֵי לֵוִי. 7 and put fire therein, and put incense upon them before the LORD to-morrow; and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy; ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.’
ח  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-קֹרַח:  שִׁמְעוּ-נָא, בְּנֵי לֵוִי. 8 And Moses said unto Korah: ‘Hear now, ye sons of Levi:
ט  הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם, אֵלָיו–לַעֲבֹד, אֶת-עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה, וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה, לְשָׁרְתָם. 9 is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them;
י  וַיַּקְרֵב, אֹתְךָ, וְאֶת-כָּל-אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי-לֵוִי, אִתָּךְ; וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם, גַּם-כְּהֻנָּה. 10 and that He hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? and will ye seek the priesthood also?
יא  לָכֵן, אַתָּה וְכָל-עֲדָתְךָ–הַנֹּעָדִים, עַל-יְהוָה; וְאַהֲרֹן מַה-הוּא, כִּי תלונו (תַלִּינוּ) עָלָיו. 11 Therefore thou and all thy company that are gathered together against the LORD–; and as to Aaron, what is he that ye murmur against him?’

In the translation above, רַב-לָכֶם is interpreted in English as meaning “going too far.” Korach first accuses Moses of “going too far” for making both himself and Aaron holier than the rest of the congregation when holiness is a quality of the community and not of individuals. Moses responds and tells Korach that it is he who has gone “too far” for it is God who determines who is and who is not holy. Korach in his democratic claim for holiness is out of order.

“Rav,” from which we get the term “rabbi,” means a chief, a leader and, as an adjective, “rav” means “great.” The reference is to an authority figure and the depiction of the authority of the person referred to when used as an adjective. Essentially, Korach is accusing Moses of going beyond or outside his authority while Moses insists that Korach, in challenging Moses’ authority, even on the basis of the unanimous will of the Levite priests, is out-of-line.

The competing claims are not just about strength of leadership, but about the nature of that leadership. For Moses, all authority derived from God and it is he, Moses, who has been chosen by God to be the interface between God and the Israelites so that his leadership comes from a divine right of rule. Korach, in challenging this authority, exceeds his own role. For democratic election, even by unanimous consent of his fellow leaders, does not justify challenging Moses and, in essence, challenging God’s authority.

This is clearly a much more fundamental challenge to the leadership of Moses than that of Moses’ siblings, who accused him of lacking ethnic purity for marrying a Cushite woman. It is a much more fundamental challenge than that of the scouts who questioned Moses’ leadership and prophecy for the invasion of the Promised Land by focusing on the strength and power of the resident population.

However, רַב-לָכֶם can mean more than simply being out-of-line in terms of justifiable authority. The phrase can refer to the personal characteristics that thrust the individual into a position of going too far. The phrase can mean that Korach accuses Moses of being “too full of himself” both in the negative sense of arrogance, but also in a more positive but still critical sense of being so absorbed with his cause and his leadership that he has left behind his responsibility for communicating to his followers, and, perhaps more importantly, listening to those followers. Moses was accused of being too full of himself perhaps in both those senses.

Korach could also have been accused by Moses, not only of being out-of-line, but of being too full of himself for failing to listen to Moses and, through Moses, the word of the Lord, and of being too full of himself for taking on the mantle of leadership in challenging the leadership of Moses. The issue is not simply about formal and authentic authority but about ad hominem arguments about the character of the rivals. Thus, abundance of authority as an objective statement is one part of the contention; but the other side is the subjective quality of assuming too much for oneself.

The context of the narrative as depicted in the previous blog favours Moses in two respects. Objectively, he is God’s choice as the leader and the interface between God’s chosen people. If the people can be chosen, so can the leader. Further, in terms of personality, Moses is humble and did not seek the leadership role, unlike Korach. He was both a reluctant and a reticent leader. In contrast, Korach, even though he went to the assembly of Levites to win unanimous support, was one who initiated the leadership role he was now playing. Further, authentic authority is not derived from popular will but from divine will.

This is why this portion is so crucial in setting out the heart of the political theory of the Torah. Our contemporary sensibilities are democratic. Who among us supports a divine right of leadership? Yet the narrator of the text clearly does. The narrator unequivocally characterizes Korach’s claim as an uprising and conspiracy against the leadership of Moses, even though it appears, even in the narrator’s own description, simply to be a protest or petition or argument and not an uprising or challenge to Moses as leader. Korach challenges Moses’ performance, not his position.

However, is that a distinction without a difference? For Moses can only really perform as a leader if he is accepted as having legitimate authority. When Moses exaggerates the challenge Korach posed, and, even more, when he met Dathan’s and Abiram’s act of civil disobedience with not only exaggeration about the political action they took, but with distractions like saying, “I’m not a crook,” when no one made any such complaint, one immediately has to suspect the authenticity of such authority that depends on such an irrelevant defence and rationale.

If Moses mischaracterized the nature of both challenges, if Moses resorted to such defensiveness and irrelevancies to justify his legitimacy as the leading authority figure, does this not inherently weaken that claim for authority? How could it not? And so it is left to God (and magic) to determine who is right. But does not the means of resolution (the duel of the frying pans) as well as the apparent gross disproportion of the penalties meted out to the 250 Levites, to the Reubenites, Datham and Abiram, as well as Korach himself raise serious questions about the authentic source of authority of Moses?

A reader wrote asking:

“Can you elaborate more on a reason why Korach and his followers were punished so severely by God? What do you think is the main reason for God’s decision to execute and destroy so many human beings because of Korach’s action? What went absolutely wrong triggering God’s action? The decision to incinerate and swallow up human life must be the hardest one for God Himself considering that God is destroying His own creation created in His own image. Can we understand God’s decision and raise our awareness of its meaning for us?

“It seems to me that to understand God’s reason must be very important in order to understand the significance of Moshe’s role in his and in any generation, including ours.  Every generation needs Moshe, a man being blessed by God, giving him plenty of Ruach – God’s breath, spirit to teach man to be humble human being in any circumstances.  I need that lesson myself. Was Korach blessed? Was he rewarded with God’s spirit? I believe so. How was he using God’s blessing and his own will? Was he humble human being understanding his own limits?”

I believe a glimpse of the answer might be found in the source for the authority Korach cited in challenging Moses. Korach argued that, “all the congregation is holy.”כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁי) ) “Are,” not holiness as an aspiration. The Israelites were claimed by Korach to be a holy people, not just for being chosen, not just for that being the challenge for their realization, but because they had already achieved a holy status, and had achieved that status even before they entered the Promised Land. If that was the case, then what was the point of the whole historical struggle up until then and until now? God then would become a God of Being rather than a God of becoming – a God who reveals Himself over time.

If that is the case, then in spite of Korach’s evident merits as a political and religious leader, especially in contrast to the stumbles and bumbles of Moses who stutters as much in his actions as in his words, Korach metaphorically received the punishment that he deserved. For if the work of creation had been achieved, if the purpose of history had been accomplished, then from dust man came and to dust he could return. The earth swallowed him up, not heaven. The punishment metaphorically suited the crime.

What about Dathan and Abiram who had the opposite complaint – that the whole point of the wandering in the wilderness was a mistake? Even if it had been a success, it was not worth the cost in human lives and the extreme and disproportionate punishments meted out to challengers. If Korach was chastised for assuming he was at the end of history, Dathan and Abiram were chastised for giving up their faith in history. The cost had been too great. If the Shoah was part of that self-revelation, who needs a God who reveals Himself in history? Hence, they too had metaphorically been swallowed by the earth, but for the opposite reason to Korach.

What about the 250 other Levites, chieftains in their own right and chosen by the Assembly democratically to represent the voice of the people? They were not swallowed up by the earth. They were incinerated just as the two eldest sons of Aaron had been. They were taken up to heaven in the divine smoke for they had not made a metaphysical error but an error in judgement in following Korach and, thus, metaphorically in the use of the firer pans.

The story of Korach is a metaphysical and metaphoric tale rather than a literal one. Datham and Abiram, the 250 other Levites, and Moses himself, all screw up. Moses most of all. But the latter did so in political and sociological terms. He was full of mindblindness even more than he was infused with humility. But he never deviated for his belief in God as one who reveals Himself in history. Korach thought the Israelites had arrived. Dahlan and Abiram thought they never would, and, even if they did, it was not worth the cost. The 250 never gave any indication that they had surrendered to either view but did follow Korach in his protest and thus made an error in judgement rather than a metaphysical error. They were allowed to rise to heaven rather than being swallowed up by the earth. Each received metaphorically the “punishment” appropriate to the crime. Moses received the worst punishment of all – denial of entry into the Promised Land just when he was at the edge of fulfilling that stage of the journey.

How Moses must have suffered compared to Korach, the 250 or Dathan and Abiram!

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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