“Lessons from the Rebels”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we learn about the infamous rebellion of Korach and his cohorts against G-d and Moses. Scripture tells us that Korach and his associates–Datan, Abiram, On the son of Pelet, the children of Reuven and 250 Israelites, who were all men of renown, gathered together against Moses and Aaron and complained (Numbers 16:3): “Rav la’chem, kee chol ha’ay’dah koo’lahm k’doshim, oo’v’tocham Hashem, oo’ma’doo’ah tit’nah’s’oo ahl k’hal Hashem.” You [Moses and Aaron] have enough! For all the people of Israel are holy and G-d is among them, and why do you [Moses and Aaron] raise yourselves up over the congregation of G-d?

In despair, Moses falls on his face, and announces that in the morning a divine test will be conducted to determine who G-d has truly chosen. In Numbers 16:8-10 Moses pleads with Korach, asking him, isn’t it enough that he has been chosen by G-d from among the people of Israel to serve in the Tabernacle of G-d as a Levite, yet he seeks the Priesthood as well?

Our commentators, both classical and modern, suggest many reasons for Korach’s rebellion. However, from a literal reading of the text, it seems quite evident that Korach was unhappy with his position as a Levite and longed to serve as a Priest. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes that Korach became jealous particularly because he was not chosen to serve as the Prince of the Levitic family of Kehat. Instead, Elitzafan, the son of Uziel, Korach’s cousin, was appointed, even though Uziel was the youngest child of Kehat.

The conclusion of the story of Korach is well-known. The earth opens and swallows Korach and most of his associates. Soon, a plaque breaks out among the people and Aaron is called upon to stop the plague. To stifle dissent, proof of Aaron’s chosenness is demonstrated to all the people through the blossoming of Aaron’s staff. The parasha concludes with a reiteration of Aaron’s duties, the listing of the gifts of the people of Israel to the Priests, and the tithes that the people presented to the Levites.

Toward the end of the parasha, in Numbers 18:3, the Torah declares that the Levites must strictly safeguard the Tabernacle and the sanctuary. The Levites are clearly warned: “Ach el k’lay ha’kodesh v’el ha’miz’bay’ach lo yik’rah’voo, v’lo yah’moo’too.” They [the Levites themselves], shall not approach the holy vessels or the altar, that they die not. The priest must cover the holy vessels before the Levites enter to move the vessels. The Torah portion then continues to specify what the role of the Levites is to be. Numbers 18:6 declares that the Levites alone shall do the service of the Tent of Meeting.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (The classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in thirteenth-century Spain) suggests that the laws regarding the roles of the Levites are emphasized at this point in the parasha for two reasons. After all, the Levites have a very special function. They are, in effect, the “courtiers” of the King [G-d] and therefore are expected to maintain their proper image and dignity at all times. Hence, they may not change their duties at random. Secondly, these laws encourage efficiency and eliminate needless duplication and overlapping of work. Each Levite has an exact place and a precise duty, resulting in maximum efficiency.

The same is true of life in general. More often than not, fate, nature and G-d determine to a great extent what our role in life may be or may not be. A very short person will probably not qualify to be a professional basketball player, nor is a very large person likely to qualify to serve as an astronaut, since he/she may not fit into the narrow spaceship. A person with poor vision or slow reflexes may not qualify to be a jet pilot, nor will a person with short arms qualify to be a bass player. Our life roles are, to a great extent, predetermined by nature, by our physical endowments and limitations.

Despite this seemingly “preordained” destiny, Judaism encourages each person to work to his/her maximum potential, to excel in the area in which they are gifted and become the best that they may be within the given parameters.

Neither Judaism, nor life, is “Play Dough” that can be pulled, squeezed and stretched into shape at whim. There are numerous predetermined elements that limit our options. Furthermore, it is only within “structure” that life becomes most meaningful. It is structure that provides people with the “edge” to achieve far more than would be otherwise possible. Without mastering the ABC’s or memorizing the times-table, our lives would be infinitely poorer, reduced and restricted. Learning those ABC’s and memorizing the times-table is never easy, but these efforts result in liberation and vast opportunities.

As a Levite, Korach already had a key role to play in his designated area of expertise. He could have achieved great acclaim, perhaps rising to become the foremost Levite of his time, in the service of G-d. True, the role of the Priest is more public and more “glorious” than the role of the Levite, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the more valued role. Look how many “tailors” are more highly regarded today than many of the foremost medical researchers. We all know the names Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karen and the names of many of the great contemporary designers. Yet, how many names of leading cancer researchers are most people familiar with?

The lesson that is learned from the episode of Korach is not a lesson that was meant to be only for Korach and his family; it is really meant for all generations. The message of Korach’s life exhorts all of humankind to explore their personal options thoroughly and carefully. Each person must strive to be the best that they can be, given their natural endowments. Acclaim need not always be public. Acclaim may manifest itself in the form of a heartfelt “sense of satisfaction” or happiness within one’s family. Ultimately, we really don’t know how G-d measures our accomplishments and our deeds. Is it the miner who discovers the precious diamond who is the most important member of the production team? Is it the stone cutter or the polisher, or is it the delivery person/mailman who finally brings the stone to market so that it can be utilized. After all, without the delivery, all the other labors are essentially performed in vain.

Few of us today identify with Korach, yet there is an important message for each and every one of us to learn from his life. There is much good in store for those who heed the lessons to be learned from the saga of Korach. Unfortunately, there is also a deep pit waiting to consume those who ignore these critical lessons.

May you be blessed.