By Shlomo Riskin
“Datan and Aviram went out erect at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, children and infants...’” (Numbers 16:27,30).
I have explained in a previous commentary on the biblical portion of Korah that there were a number of different political camps rebelling against Moses, each one with a different agenda. Even in their rebellious backsliding, the Israelites were bitterly and fractiously divided.
One political party wished to remain in the desert, a second group wished to return to Egypt and a third wished to rush up and conquer Israel immediately.
Those who supported immediate conquest probably did so in a desperate attempt to avert the punishment of death in the desert, despite the fact that the Israelites were without the ark of the Lord and were devoid of the spirit of God within their midst.
This last group of rebels, known as the “ma’apilim,” was actually the first to act, and they received their punishment at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites, who struck them and pounded them into retreat (Numbers 14:45).
The opening verse of our portion mentions three ring-leaders: Korah, Datan and Aviram. Korah apparently led one faction and Datan and Aviram the other.
Our supposition regarding two separate and opposing factions emanates from the fact that the Bible delineates two separate groups of people and their distinctive punishments: “The ground which was under them [Datan and Aviram, their followers, wives and children; see 16:25,27] split open, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korah [but not Korah himself], and their entire wealth” (16:31,32). Then, only three verses later, a second punishment: “A fire came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense” (16:35).
Our careful reading of these verses also enables us to identify the political agenda of each leader and his camp. When Datan and Aviram refuse Moses’s request to appear before him, they offer the following argument:
“Is it not enough that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the desert, must you also rule over us, yes, rule over us?” (16:13).
Note that they refer to Egypt – not the Land of Israel – as the land “flowing with milk and honey.” They are apparently the instigators of the view that wishes to “appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (14:3), that believes, “it would have been better for us to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the desert” (Exodus 14:12). No wonder Rashi identifies Datan and Aviram as the two Hebrews at the beginning of the Book of Exodus who fought amongst themselves and rebuked Moses – who had just slain the Egyptian taskmaster who was slaying a Hebrew – for presuming to be a “ruler and judge over them.” These two upstarts never wished to leave Egypt in the first place and they were punished by being swallowed by the ground.
Korah was the leader of the other faction, the bearers of the censers of incense. Moses reveals to us why Korah questioned Moses’s leadership: “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has segregated you to perform the service of the Tabernacle [as a Levite], that you yet seek the priesthood as well?” (Numbers 16:8-10).
Korah wants to be a Kohen! When the Kotzker Rebbe refers to Korah as “the holy grandfather,” he seems to attribute to him the highest motivations. He and his assemblage wish to be holy and they are desperately seeking a way to come closer to God.
So Moses tests them by inviting them to offer the priestly gift of incense – an offering which they, as Levites, had not been commanded to bring. They suffer the same fate as Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, who also brought an uninvited sacrifice, and were consumed by Divine fire.
Apparently, zealousness in the service of God is not appreciated; it can lead, God forbid, to jihadism and shahidism – and must be nipped in the bud.
Korah reached up too high. He desired to remain in the rarefied, decision-less kollel atmosphere of the desert, refusing to sully his holy hands with the political necessities of creating a nation-state, with the military necessities of vanquishing Amalek and enthroning the God of compassionate righteousness and moral justice throughout the world.
Datan and Aviram sunk too low, preferring mindless enslavement in Egypt to the difficult decisions and responsibilities of attempting to perfect the world in the Kingship of God. They did not think they were holy at all. They did not recognize the image of God within themselves, that portion of the Divine from on high which cries out to us from the deepest recesses of our souls, “Give me liberty or give me death; rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” They became overwhelmed by the very earthiness they believed was the essence of their being, and couldn’t even lift their heads above the darkness to see the light of human freedom and empowerment within their own souls.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.