Korach 5781-2021

“The Origin of the ‘Big Lie’”
(updated and revised from Korach 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Korach, we read of Korach and his rebellion against G-d, Moses and Aaron.

Although Korach was himself a member of the noble tribe of Levi, he persuades Dathan, and Abiram and On, of the tribe of Reuven, and 250 leaders of the people of Israel to join in his rebellion. They confronted Moses and Aaron and demanded (Numbers 16:3): רַב לָכֶם, כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, “You, [Moses and Aaron], have taken too much for yourselves! After all, the entire congregation is holy,” וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם, “and why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?”

Our rabbis suggest many reasons for Korach’s rebellion. In order to explain the juxtaposition between the end of the previous Torah portion, Shelach, which deals with the theme of tzitzit, and this week’s Torah portion, the rabbis propose that Korach, the ultimate rationalist, could not abide by the fact that Jewish law requires that a talit, a prayer shawl, that was entirely made of blue threads, must have tzitzit fringes attached. Others suggest that Korach felt that he was treated with disrespect when a younger cousin, Elitzaphan, the son of Uziel, was chosen to serve as the Prince of the tribe of Levi.

Whatever his reason, Korach was a brilliant provocateur who was able to stir up the passions of the masses, convincing the hordes to believe that he was rebelling for the sake of the common people, instead of for his own personal benefit.

Parashat Korach is particularly abundant in Midrashim, and many legends enhance the already dramatic narrative. However, one particular legend is extraordinarily revealing and prescient.

The Midrash relates that Korach attempted to incite the people to join his rebellion against Moses, by railing against the gifts and tributes that were given to the priests, who were of course from the family of Aaron and Moses. According to the Midrash, Korach went from house to house telling the Israelites the story that he had invented of the “oppressed widow.”

There lived in my vicinity a widow with two orphan daughters, who owned a field, whose yield was just sufficient for them to barely keep body and soul together. When this woman set out to plow her field, Moses appeared and said: ‘Thou shalt not plow with an ox and donkey together.’ When she began to sow, Moses appeared and said: ‘Thou shalt not plant diverse seeds.’ When the first fruits showed in the poor widow’s field, Moses appeared and bade her bring the fruits to the priests, for to them are due ‘the first of all the fruit of the earth.’ And when at length, the time came for her to cut the produce down, Moses appeared and ordered her ‘not to wholly reap the corners of the field, nor to gather the gleanings of the harvest, but to leave them for the poor.’ When she had done all that Moses had bidden, and was about to thrash the grain, Moses appeared once more and said: ‘Give me the heave offering, and the first and the second tithes that all belong to the priests.’

After the deduction of all the tributes that Moses had imposed upon her, when at last the poor woman became aware of the fact that she could not now possibly maintain herself from the yield of the field, she sold the field, and with the proceeds purchased ewes, in the hope that she might now, undisturbed, have the benefit of the wool as well as of the younglings of the sheep. She was, however, mistaken. When the first youngling of the sheep was born, Aaron appeared and demanded it, for the first-born belonged to the priest. She had a similar experience with the wool. At shearing time, Aaron reappeared and demanded ‘the first of the fleece of the sheep,’ which, according to Moses’ law, was his. But, not content with this, he reappeared later and demanded one sheep out of every ten as a tithe, to which again, according to the law, he had claim.

This, however, was again too much for the long-suffering woman, and she slaughtered the sheep, assuming that finally she might now feel herself secure, in full possession of the meat. But, she was mistaken! Aaron appeared, and basing his claim on the Torah, demanded the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw. ‘Alas!’ exclaimed the woman, ‘the slaughtering of the sheep did not deliver me out of your hands! Let the meat then be consecrated to the sanctuary.’ Aaron said, ‘Everything devoted to G-d is mine. It shall then be all mine.’ He departed taking with him the meat of the sheep and leaving behind the widow and her daughters weeping bitterly. Such men,” said Korach, concluding his tale, “are Moses and Aaron who pass their cruel measures as divine law.” (Based on Legends of the Jews, by Louis Ginzberg)

It was with these words, and with this heart-rending story, that Korach managed to seduce thousands of Israelites to join in his rebellion.

Eventually, through the use of holy incense, Moses proves that only Moses is truly G-d’s chosen. As the earth opens and swallows Korach and his immediate followers, fire bursts forth and devours the 250 men who sacrificed the counterfeit incense.

Like many enemies of Israel, including the Hamas terrorists of today, Korach was a genius at public relations and marketing. His lies were extraordinary, but always based on some truth. In fact, everything that Korach said about the priestly gifts and the tithes were absolutely true, but reported in such a distorted manner, that it resulted in dramatic incitement and rebellion.

According to the Torah, when Moses ultimately confronted Korach before the people, he said (Numbers 16:29-30): If these people [Korach and his cohorts] die a natural death, then G-d did not send me. But, if G-d creates a special creation and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up, then you will know that these people have indeed provoked G-d.

The Midrash elaborates, reporting, that just as Moses was speaking, a wondrous image appeared before the People of Israel, and behold the nation was dwelling in the land that G-d had promised them, working the fields. The Levites, the converts, the orphaned children, the widows, the poor, and all those who languished, were coming to the fields to eat and be satiated. Whoever possessed a field or a vineyard, would come out to greet all those who were hungry and all those lacking bread, calling out to them: “Come my brother, come to me and I’ll feed you, and give you to drink, and we will rejoice together in the bounty that G-d has given us.” In fact, the more that the nation of Israel increased its tithes and left the corners of the fields and the fallen stalks for the poor and the strangers, and its heave offerings and tithes and the first shearing of the sheep to the priest, the more G-d opened His treasure trove of goodness, the heavens, to give the people rain in its proper time and to bless all the works of their hands.

In this truthful image that appeared before the nation of Israel, the earth brought forth its bounty, and the trees bore their fruit, the harvest season extended into the planting season, and the planting season into the harvest season. And, the wine vats were full with wine, and the oil storage overflowed, unable to contain all that had been produced.

The Midrash says that when Korach and his rebellious cohorts beheld the utopian vision that had appeared before them, they heard G-d’s voice saying, (Psalms 145:20), שׁוֹמֵר השׁם אֶת כָּל אֹהֲבָיו, וְאֵת כָּל הָרְשָׁעִים יַשְׁמִיד, G-d will protect all who love Him, (who do acts of loving-kindness and justice) and will destroy all evildoers.

At that very moment, the earth opened its mouth as holes appeared all over the ground. Korach and all the rebels were swallowed by the earth and were gathered to one place. As they tumbled into oblivion, they cried out in a resounding voice, מֹשֶׁה אֱמֶת וְתוֹרָתוֹ אֱמֶת, “Moses is true and his Torah is true!” The earth then covered them, and they were lost forever.

Many of our enemies, and even a few of our misguided Jewish brothers and sisters, employ these tactics, the tactic of the “Big Lie,” to attack our people, Israel. They either harp on a single individual’s misdeeds, implying that all Jews are corrupt, or they simply fabricate lies about Jews. Our Jewish brothers and sisters who are, most often, ignorant of tradition, frequently find an obtuse verse or obscure rabbinic saying onto which they latch in order to justify their apostasy and faithlessness, making little effort to see the beauty that often resides in the very elements that they criticize.

The critics of the State of Israel conveniently forget that Israel accepted the original UN resolution allowing for the establishment of the State of Israel, but that the fledgling state was immediately attacked by five invading Arab armies. They forget that the “West Bank” was under complete control of the Jordanians for 17 years, but no Palestinian State was established, and that Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Yassir Arafat 98% of the West Bank land and a capital in Jerusalem, but the offer was rejected.

Even in the recent battle with Hamas in Gaza, the media constantly reports the “disproportionate” numbers of Palestinian casualties (254 Palestinian civilians vs 12 Israeli), even though Hamas itself has admitted that 80 of the dead were “militants.” Israel claims that 200 of those “civilians” were terrorists, and that many other Palestinian civilians, women and children were killed by Hamas’ own errant rockets, but Israel’s statistics are never reported by the media. Never is it mentioned that Hamas’s “marketing” strategy is to purposely use civilians and children as human shields! Instead of building bomb shelters to protect its civilians, Hamas cynically spent billions that it collected from international donors to build hundreds of kilometers of underground tunnels where its “courageous” fighters could hide while the numerous dead women and children served as their “victims” for the photographers and the international press.

Is there any country in the world that would have allowed over 4,000 deadly missiles aimed at civilians to rain down on its major population centers without a response? Israel always makes extraordinary efforts to prevent civilian casualties. Most other countries at war make no effort at all, resulting in thousands of civilian victims, but only Israel is condemned! Only Israel is forbidden to defend itself! Only Israel is constantly denounced as a most horrendous, unethical country, frequently accused of committing war crimes and Nazi-like atrocities.

To counter this misinformation, Jews need to be knowledgeable in our responses to these untoward attacks. We must educate ourselves sufficiently to make certain that we are in a position to show our enemies, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, the true picture of G-d, and of our extraordinary religion, so that, hopefully, before the earth opens to swallow them, the entire world will cry out, מֹשֶׁה אֱמֶת וְתוֹרָתוֹ אֱמֶת, “Moses is true and his Torah is true,” and, thereby, spare the world much unnecessary pain and suffering.

May you be blessed.