“Korach’s Rebellion: Why is the Jewish Community Losing So Many of its Best and its Brightest?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Korach, tells the fascinating story of the rebellion of Korach and his co-conspirators. Korach convinces Datan and Abiram, and Ohn the son of Pelet, together with 250 leaders of the tribe of Reuven, to rebel against Moses and Aaron. In their complaint against Moses and Aaron they cry out (Numbers 16:3): “Rav lachem, kee chol ha’ayda ku’lam k’doshim uv’toh’cham Hashem, oo’madu’ah tit’nas’uh al k’hal Hashem?” You take too much upon yourselves [Moses and Aaron], after all, the entire congregation is holy, and the L-rd is among them. Why then do you raise yourselves as if you are above the assembly of G-d?

According to the rabbinic tradition, Korach is consumed by jealousy of his cousin Moses. After all, Moses has become, in effect, the King of Israel, Aaron the High Priest, and a younger cousin, Elizaphan, has just been appointed President of the tribe of Levi, while Korach, who was next in line from the point of view of age, has been passed over. According to this interpretation, Korach has been able to persuade the 250 Reubenites to join his rebellion, because they too were recently shortchanged. Apparently, these 250 Reubenites were actually firstborn children (bechorim) who should have been appointed ministers in the Tabernacle but had been replaced by the Levites because of the firstborns’ sin with the Golden Calf.

Another rabbinic tradition depicts Korach as challenging Moses intellectually and halakhically (legally). According to this interpretation, Korach had his 250 followers dressed up in garments made entirely of blue wool to challenge Moses, demanding to know whether these garments required tzizit (fringes). When Moses said that tzitit were required, Korach denounced the logic of his decision. Confronting Moses on a second issue, Korach demanded to know whether one is required to place a mezuzah on the doorpost of a room that is full of Torah scrolls. Korach once again dismisses the logic of Moses’ affirmative response that a mezuzah is required.

Parashat Korach abounds with rabbinic and Midrashic traditions, providing a multitude of alternate reasons for Korach’s rebellion. Virtually all presuppose that Korach was a great scholar. As Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 the foremost commentator on the Bible) notes on Numbers 16:7: “V’korach, sheh’pee’kay’ach hah’yah, mah rah’ah lish’tut zeh?” But Korach, who was a wise and learned person, how did he come to commit such a great folly? Rashi proceeds to suggest that Korach saw through prophecy that his future descendants would be great people, leading him to incorrectly assume that his rebellion would succeed.

By examining the question of Jewish apostasy, we may discover a possible alternate reason for Korach’s straying.

How is it that over the millennia the observant Jewish community has lost so many of its best and brightest to other faiths and beliefs and to a host of diverse causes? Elisha ben Abuyah–the great Rabbinic sage who became a pagan believer, Spinoza–the founder of Pantheism, so many great Jewish leaders and scientists, and so many young people of contemporary times have walked away from their Judaism. Why does this happen?

On June 4, 1999, a news write-up appeared on the front page of the Forward newspaper, which reported that the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Prof. Baruch Blumberg, a graduate of Flatbush Yeshiva, would be coordinating a special NASA research project to search for the origins of life. Prof. Blumberg himself announced that in his search for answers to this question he intends to consult Talmudic and Biblical sources. Yet, the Forward also noted that over the years, Prof. Blumberg had become less and less observant and now attends synagogue “infrequently.”

How painful it is to watch as we lose so many of our best young people. Perhaps the story of Korach can provide some insight into the reasons for these defections. The great sage of the past century, the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933), in his commentary on the Code of Jewish Law known as the “Mishna B’rurah,” points out in the section of rules concerning the recitation of the Sh’ma prayer that there are two awarenesses, kavanot, that a person must have in mind when performing a mitzvah:

1) An awareness to fulfill the mitzvah as a commandment of G-d.
2) An awareness in one’s heart regarding the mitzvah itself.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we’re losing our best and brightest is that our educational system often places too much stress on the first awareness–that G-d has commanded us to behave in a certain manner, that we better tow the line and act properly or else we will face dire consequences: punishment, suffering, or worse. Unfortunately, our schools and our teachers often place little emphasis on the second awareness, on the inner fulfillment and inner joy that one experiences from the performance of meaningful religious acts. Without the sense of inner fulfillment, very few Jews will ever want to reaffirm their ties to our faith system, especially if they view our religion as preoccupied with dread, fear and punishment. Our young people are looking for inner meaning and self-fulfillment, certainly not dread. And while Judaism has so much positive to give in this area, somehow we’ve neglected to communicate it. Perhaps this is what happened to Korach.

We can win the Korachs back, together with the Elisha ben Abuyas, the Spinozas and the Blumbergs, but we need to redirect the focus of Jewish education to make certain that we sufficiently emphasize the myriad positive, joyous aspects of our tradition. It is imperative that every Jewish child and adult be made fully aware of the beauty and revolutionariness of our wonderful heritage. We can win back the masses by winning back their hearts and their souls to Torah. As the psalmist in Psalm 34 sings, “Ta’amu ur’u kee tov Hashem,” Come, taste and see, that G-d is good.

May you be blessed.