By Shlomo Riskin ~
In this week’s Torah portion, the situation in the desert goes from bad to worse, from the refusal of the Israelites to conquer Israel (the sin of the scouts) to an actual mutiny against Moses their
leader. Why would so many Israelites ignore the many miracles of the exodus and display such ingratitude to their leader?
After all, Moses took an oppressed and enslaved people and – at enormous personal sacrifice – forged them into a Godenthused, sensitive, responsible and independent nation! Why rebel against
To deepen our enquiry, it would appear that there were two rebellions with two different causes. The key to understanding what really caused the desert mutinies emanates from an insight expressed by the medieval Biblical commentator, the Ibn Ezra, who picks up on the fact that there were two different punishments meted out to the rebels: “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up” one group, (Numbers 16:32) and “fire came forth from the Lord and devoured the 250 bearers of incense” (Numbers 16:35), the other group.
There is even a difference of opinion as to which group Korach belonged! “…There are those who say that Korach was amongst those swallowed up by the earth … and there are those who say that he was burnt to death …It is my opinion that only Datan and Aviram were swallowed up by the earth and Korach (was burnt together with) the incense bearers…” (Ibn Ezra to Numbers 16:35).
Let us reconstruct what actually occurred. Korach may have couched his words in the palatable and persuasive tones of democracy, but he was more a demagogue than a democrat.
“It’s enough for you,’ he ranted, “because the entire congregation are all holy and God is in their midst; why do you raise yourselves up above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3). His major rebellion is against Aaron; he wants to be the High Priest! Moses sees through his words.
Moses actually charges the rebel with “seeking also the priesthood” and casting aspersions against Aaron. (Numbers 16:5- 11). Therefore, he challenges Korach to offer up censers with incense as a sacrifice to God, an act that is ordinarily a priestly responsibility.
This will also explain why the famed Rebbe of Kotzk refers to Korach as the “holy grandfather.” After all, Korach was only seeking a closer relationship to God, a more central role in the Divine service. He, like Nadav and Avihu (the sons of Aaron) before him, wished only to bring an offering to the Lord – even if he hadn’t been commanded to do so. He aspired to sanctity – but refused to accept the fact that there were divine limits upon the sacred, that one must be deemed worthy to come close to the Divine.
And so, Korach and his band of followers are consumed by a fire sent by God – the very punishment meted out to Nadav and Avihu, for a very similar reason. (Leviticus 10:1-3, and Rashi ad loc).
Although Datan and Aviram banded together with Korach, they had an entirely different agenda. According to the Midrash, they were long-time opponents of Moses’ authority and his religio-political agenda.
They never wanted to leave Egypt, nor do they now wish to leave the desert for the Land of Israel. They were the two fighting Israelites who Moses encountered at the very beginning of his career. They refused to accept his chastisement responding, “Who appointed you as minister and judge over us: do you wish to slay us as you slew the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14). They resented Moses’ having taken command, and they were perfectly content to remain in Egypt and “cooperate” with Pharaoh’s policies. Having been forced to swallow Moses’ leadership when he returned from Midian, they now try to utilize the victory of the ten scouts to depose Moses for good.
Moses recognizes the fact that Datan and Aviram’s agenda is different from that of Korach; they are rebelling against him and his rule, not against Aaron. He therefore asks to meet them separately (Numbers 16:12). They refuse to come, saying: “Was it not enough that you took us out of the land flowing with milk and honey (Egypt, for them) to die in the desert that you also wish to rule over us…” (Numbers 16:13). And when the punishment of the opening of the earth to devour the sinners is being executed, the Bible emphasizes that Moses and the elders come to Datan and Aviram
(Numbers 16:25). They may have lived near Korach, but this is their only connection to him. They and their families are swallowed up by the earth – not Korach! They received their just punishment; disappearing into the earth because it was the fruitfulness of the land of Egypt and the materialism of the earthly existence which led to their rebellion
against a prophet of God.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.