“Where Did Korach Go Wrong?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the rebellion of Korach, Datan and Abiram, and 250 men of the Children of Israel, leaders and men of renown, who joined the rebellion.

The Torah, in Numbers 16:3, reports that Korach and his cohorts gathered around Moses and Aaron, berating them saying, רַב לָכֶם, כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם, “It is too much for you! For the entire assembly, all of them are holy, and the L-rd is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the L-rd?”

When Moses heard this, in desperation, he fell on his face.

Moses eventually suggests that a heavenly test be conducted to determine who are the true leaders. Korach and his followers are to bring firepans, and G-d will choose who should be the leaders of Israel. Ultimately, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers, and a heavenly fire consumes the 250 men who rebelled with Korach.

Rashi, in his comments on Numbers 16:7, asks, וְקֹרַח, שֶׁפִּקֵּחַ הָיָה, מָה רָאָה לִשְׁטוּת זֶה, Korach was a brilliant man, how did he do such a foolish thing? Citing the Midrash Rabbah, Rashi explains, that Korach saw that his future descendants would include the great prophet Samuel, and that members of his family would serve in the Temple rotations, not realizing that his own sons would repent and survive, while he would perish.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus  in Tiferet Shimshon, notes that when Korach calls out Moses and Aaron saying that the entire community is holy not just you, he didn’t understand that there can be only one primary leader of Israel, only one High Priest and only one primary prophet. While the crown of Torah can be worn by any of the people of Israel, Korach couldn’t accept the fact that there must be a single primary leader. Korach couldn’t appreciate the fact that the Torah is transmitted from person to person, from generation to generation, and that all those who are involved in the transmission can achieve the status of Moses who heard the Torah first from the Al-mighty G-d. In fact, one who learns Torah from a mentor or teacher is considered, in rabbinic literature, as learning Torah directly from the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik maintains that Korach saw Moses and Aaron as power-hungry, placing themselves above the rest of Israel. He perceived that Moses had anointed himself as king, with ultimate power and authority over all the people. But, that was not really the role that Moses had assumed. The Jewish people were not at all Moses’ subjects; they were, in fact, G-d’s subjects. The community was not structured as a monarchy or a political community, but as a “covenantal” community.

Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that, throughout the ages, the primary figure of the covenantal community was not the king, the warrior, or even the High Priest, but the teacher! The leader of the covenantal community cannot force the people to follow him. They were never the leaders’ subjects, they were, in fact, his disciples. By making a free will commitment, the people choose to follow him as their leader and to accept him as their teacher and mentor.

That is why Moses is known as “Moshe Rabeinu,” Moses our teacher. Even Aaron served not only as a High Priest, but as a master teacher. Similarly, although the priests ministered in the Temple, their sanctity derived from their role as teachers.

Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Moses had not raised himself above the community as Korach charged; the community had raised him above itself.”

Many social philosophers have written about the power of leaders and the origins of their power. Only the Jewish people declared that the power of leadership is not derived from strength, might or force. The power of Jewish leadership is derived from ideas, from values and from revolutionary concepts, such as charity, and acts of loving-kindness.

By failing to understand the source of Moses’ leadership, Korach made a fateful error. By rebelling, he ultimately taught future generations to make the important distinction that he failed to make, unfortunately, at the cost of his life.

May you be blessed.