Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 – 08.06.13

Rebellion: Parashat Korah, Numbers 16:1 18:32                                                 08.06.13


Howard Adelman


On Wednesday 5 June 2013, MP Brent Rathgeber, who represents the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert in the Canadian legislature, resigned from the Conservative caucus and will now sit as an independent. The catalyst for his resignation was the gutting of his private member’s bill on transparency in the public sector, the proposed CBC and Public Service Disclosure and Transparency Act, and its provision that all civil service salaries above $188,000 be disclosed. The committee raised the level for disclosure to the maximum amount payable to a deputy minister, about $444,000, so that even the vast majority of deputy ministers will not have to have their salaries disclosed. Seven conservative members present voted for the change without arguing for it.

I say that the gutting of the bill was only the catalyst because Brent Rathgeber has long chafed under the system of following orders issued by the PMO. So have other Conservative MPs such as Mark Warawa, the outspoken anti-abortion MP. Further, only three of the seven Conservatives who pushed through the change in committee were regular members. One member from BC and three members from southern Ontario — Chris Warkentin (Peace River), Ted Opitz (Etobicoke Centre) who was allowed to keep his seat in spite of voting irregularities in the last election, Dave MacKenzie (Woodstock) and Costas Menegakis (Richmond Hill) — substituted for Dean Del Mastro (Peterborough), Colin Mayes (Okanagan), Blaine Calkins (Wetaskiwin) and Earl Dreeshen (Red Deer) who did not attend. The latter two MPs from Alberta did not respond to media requests to explain why they did not attend, suggesting possibly that they were sympathetic to the position of Brent Rathgeber but were unwilling to join Rathgeber’s open protest.

Brent Rathgeber said: “I’m obviously very, very disappointed both with the government position and certainly with the [committee’s Conservative] colleagues, many of whom philosophically support this legislation unequivocally, but seemed powerless to resist the instructions that were given to them by the [Prime Minister’s Office], by the whip or wherever the final instructions came from.”

Let us examine the so-called Korah rebellion against the background of Brent Rathgeber’s resignation. Korah’s actions against Moses and Aaron can be compared to Rathgeber’s in the following ways:

1. Korah was a cousin of Moses; Rathgeber had no family relationship to Harper.

2. Korah was a Levite, a member of the priestly class; Rathgeber had no special status.

3. Korah sought out 250 men of renown to join the protest; Rathgeber acted alone.

4. Korach combined religious leaders (Levites) and political leaders, Datham and Abiram, from the tribe of Reuben in a united front; Rathgeber’s action was strictly political but rooted in an ethical concern with transparency and accountability.

5. Korah’s rebellion was not an armed insurrection; neither was Rathgeber’s.

6. Korah’s rebellion was not a refusal to obey orders; Rathgeber explicitly resigned because he was fed up with belonging to a caucus that took orders from unelected young guys working in the PMO.

7. Korah’s rebellion was not even a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron but simply a request that power be shared to a greater extent; Rathgeber’s resignation was explicitly a challenge to the way Stephen Harper acted as a control freak.

8. Finally, in the rationale for Korah’s action, he argued that God’s spirit was in all the people and not only in the elite leadership. “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 congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) After all, the Torah does say that the whole community is holy (Kulam Kedushim) and God resides in their midst. As God said at Sinai, “You [the nation of Israel] shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) This was precisely the same point that Rathgeber made when he protested that the requirement to follow orders betrayed the Conservative Party pledges and its mandate.

There are a number of other interesting observations that can be made. According to the account, Korah’s rebellion seemed to have wide public appeal. I suspect Rathgeber’s action did as well. Rathgeber’s action was not called a rebellion but a protest made by walking with his feet. Korah’s action is virtually universally referred to as a rebellion even though the protesters were unarmed, never stated that they would no longer follow Moses or Aaron or was in any way an effort to destroy either Moses’ political or Aaron’s religious leadership or to remove them from positions of authority, though they clearly wanted to diminish that authority. It is puzzling altogether why Korah’s actions should be seen as a rebellion.

However, that is how virtually all commentators view it. Further, though many if not most might be sympathetic to Rathgeber, virtually all condemn Korah. Why?

First, many contend the protest aimed to challenge Moses’ political and Aaron’s religious leadership. After all, this is clearly how Moses saw the actions citing the principle of divine right. The rebellion was against the Lord and not against Aaron for Aaron was chosen by God to serve as the leader of the priesthood. The rebellion of Dathan and Abiram was against him and they subsequently did refuse to obey Moses’ orders to face him fearing that Moses would kill them. “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land that floweth with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, except thou make thyself altogether a prince over us?” (Numbers 16:13) Moses self-righteously defended his leadership arguing that he has been perfectly honest and a just ruler, not hurting one of them or depriving any one of their property.

The virtually universal condemnation of Korah by commentators accuse Korah of ambition in seeking a piece of the action, of seeking positions as judges and priests and being dissatisfied with the holy roles assigned them of physically taking care of the tabernacle, of mischief making, of being shit disturbers, of sewing dividiveness among the people, of challenging the need for strong leadership, of pride, arrogance and self-exaltation which they are doubly sinful of for they project those qualities on Moses and Aaron, of jealousy and envy that they were not chosen, of populism for they appealed to the will of the people that had so recently been “polluted with sin”, of injustice for they accused Moses and Aaron of usurping power when that authority was assigned to Moses and Aaron by the Lord, of usurping power themselves by engaging in the burning of incense that was a priestly duty, of projecting their own sins on Moses and Aaron for it was Korah, Dathan and Abiram who tried to supersede their authority, of speaking evil against the leadership, of being traitors for they had exalted Egypt as the land of milk and honey in contrast to the wilderness they were now in (see Numbers 16:13 quoted above), of falsely accusing Moses of betraying the promise of delivering the people to the land of milk and honey, and, most of all, of rebellion against the will of God. “For which cause both thou and all thy company are gathered together against the Lord: and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” (Numbers 16:11) God worked in mysterious ways and whether it was His mysterious ways or the ways of the invisible hand of nature or the cunning of reason, the rebels were challenging the laws of the universe.

However, most of these accusations are really repetitions of what Moses said or implied and not representations of what Korah and the other protesters did and said. For the 250 notables only said that you, Moses, have gathered too much power in the PMO, and have removed yourself from the people and taken upon yourselves power that should be returned to the people. There is absolutely NO evidence that they were asking for positions, were unhappy with their positions, or were stirring up the people. They were certainly giving voice to a sense of disquiet. Why is protest regarded as arrogance, pride and self-aggrandizement? Why is a different interpretation of their political condition and the flow of history regarded as sedition? Is it not the responsibility of everyone to speak their mind, stand up and be counted?

Evidently not if you are not echoing the party line, what is seen as the word of the Lord. Then speaking your mind is a sin. Then calling for sharing of power is a usurpation of power. Then such a challenge is a message for the leadership answering back and asserting that you are either for me or agin me. Make a choice. And God will choose those who are on the side of the Lord and the flow of history. Rathgeber, you owe it to the people who elected you as a Conservative candidate to resign and go back to seek a mandate from the people for being independent and an iconoclast. That was the response of the PMO. That is the response of Moses. Let us test your challenge.

Further, the terms of the test are set by the leader. It is not the protesters on their own who light the fires of incense against priestly regulations. Moses instructs them to do so in the true savvy of a Lenin who cunningly tricks the protesters into usurping the rules of the game.  Korah is a naïve Levite, but Dathan and Abriham are too politically astute to be sucked into the schemes of Moses even as they mistakenly interpreted the history of the people as a path of despair rather than hope. They played on the fact that Moses had come from being raised as a prince in the court of the Pharaoh and was not raised among the people. Thus, he had been conditioned to raise himself above everyone else. And Moses puts forth his integrity and self-sacrifice as a defence when there never was any accusation that Moses was in business to line his own pockets.

The congregation backed away. They witnessed the unbelievable event of the rebel leaders being swallowed by the earth and/or being consumed by fire, presumably from the own vessels of incense, and disappearing from history. What we have is an image of a sinkhole rather than an earthquake. For there is no shaking and trembling – just an opening up into what appears as a bottomless pit. The protesters were treated as all protesters are by totalitarian leaders. They join the disappeared.

However, the retreat of the people is only temporary. They stir up their courage and return to Tahrir Square in Cairo or Taksim Square in Istanbul, and show up in even larger numbers to accuse Moses of killing God’s people when he used such drastic and violent methods for suppressing the protest. Infuriated, God mows the people down inflicting them with the plague. “Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” (Numbers 16:45) If you think the casualties in Tahrir or Taksim Squares or even in the slaughters in Syria were bad, 14,700 unarmed civilians were instantly wiped out simply for wanting a Voice. Aaron intervenes and serves once again as the mediator and moderator against the wrath of both Moses and God. Aaron and Moses once again play the game of good cop, bad cop. As Moses said, as the Turkish Prime Minister, Racep Tawip Erdogan, said, the protesters are all agitators, extremists and terrorists. They are not interested in environmentalism or the well-being of the people. We will stick to our plans. We will not get off message.

Therefore, how can Korah’s protests be considered a sin? Korah’s failure is not his arrogance or his pride or ambition, not his dissatisfaction nor his trouble-making, not his divisiveness nor his envy, not treason nor usurpation of power. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in a lecture at HebrewUniversity years ago said that the sin was not in Korah’s protests, but in his assumption and interpretation that the Israelites were holy instead of understanding that holiness was a task and an aspiration God granted to the Israelites. It was not an essential given. The protesters were not wrong in seeking a greater distribution of power, but wrong on why that power should be distributed and, therefore, how. The Israelites are chosen not because they are holy but because their task is to become a holy people. Tzitzit are not holy because they are made of blue threads but because there is one blue thread sewn into the fringes. The whole is not made holy by the actions of everyone but by the actions of the singular one. Korah was a populist. The failure to recognize the fallacy of populism was Korah’s sin, not his challenge to priests or rabbis that they alone are divinely sanctioned to interpret, teach and instruct nor his challenge to the chain of command. In seeing himself as the embodiment of the people’s holy will, he was far guiltier of the usurpation of authority than the Israelite leadership.