“Korach’s Rebellion: Why is the Jewish Community Losing So Many of its Best and Brightest?”
(updated and revised from Korach 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Korach, features the fateful narrative concerning the rebellion of Korach and his co-conspirators.

Korach, who comes from a distinguished Levitic family and is a cousin to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, 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) רַב לָכֶם, כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם השׁם, וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל השׁם? “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 Prince of the tribe of Levi, while Korach, who was next in line from the point of age, has been passed over. According to this interpretation, Korach had been able to persuade the 250 Reubenites to join his rebellion, because they too had been recently snubbed. Apparently, these 250 Reubenites were actually first-born children (בְּכוֹרִיםbechorim) who should have been appointed to serve as ministers in the Tabernacle, but had been replaced by the Levites, because of the first-born’s sin with the Golden Calf.

Another rabbinic tradition depicts Korach as challenging Moses intellectually and halakhically (legally). According to this analysis, Korach had his 250 followers dress up in garments made entirely of blue wool to challenge Moses, demanding to know whether these garments required צִיצִיתtzitzit (fringes). When Moses replied that tzitzit were required, Korach denounced the logic of his decision. Confronting Moses a second time, Korach demanded to know whether a mezuzah is required to be placed on the doorpost of a room that is full of Torah scrolls. Moses responds in the affirmative, and Korach, once again, dismisses the logic of requiring a mezuzah.

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 notes in his comments on Numbers 16:7: וְקֹרַח שֶׁפִּקֵּחַ הָיָה, מָה רָאָה לִשְׁטוּת זֶה? But Korach, who was a wise and learned person, how did he come to commit such a great folly? Rashi suggests that Korach had been informed through prophecy that his future descendants would be great people, leading him to incorrectly assume that his rebellion would succeed.

Perhaps by examining the history of Jewish apostasy throughout the millennia and centuries, we may discover a possible alternate reason for Korach’s straying.

Despite the many tens of millions of Jewish victims of antisemitism, pogroms, and murderous attacks on Jews throughout history, many more Jews have been lost to Judaism due to apostacy and assimilation. In fact, over the millennia, the observant Jewish community has lost countless of its best and brightest to other faiths and beliefs and to a host of diverse causes. Elisha ben Abuyah–the great young Rabbinic sage became a pagan believer, and the well-known Jewish philosopher Spinoza—became the founder of Pantheism. Similarly, many great Jewish leaders and scientists, and many young people in 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, reporting that the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Prof. Baruch Blumberg, a graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush, 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, 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 Shema prayer, that there are two kavanot–awarenesses, that a person must bear 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 toe 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, few Jews will ever want to affirm or 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 realm, somehow, we’ve neglected to communicate it. Perhaps this is what happened to Korach.

We can win back the Korachs, 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, טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ, כִּי טוֹב השׁם , Come, taste and see, that G-d is good.

May you be blessed.