DEFY AND DENY – Korakh – Num. 16:1–17:15 –- by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
The rebellion against Moses’ leadership and Aaron’s priesthood, led by a hitherto unknown man named Korakh, has to be one of the most difficult stories in the Torah. Coming right after the failed expedition of the spies, it recounts a fellow Levite’s challenge to the authority of the two men who led the Israelite people out of slavery. Accompanied by members of the tribe of Reuben who apparently were seeking to restore the status of their ancestor as the oldest son and therefore the heir of father Jacob, Korakh and his henchmen defy Moses and Aaron, deny their right to lead, and urge the people to depose them. The confrontation results in the kind of miraculous punishment that other rebels never got. The earth opens and devours Korakh and his followers. Only Moses’ prayer saves the rest of the people. And Aaron’s position is validated by a different kind of miracle, when his wooden staff, representing the tribe of Levi, was placed in the Tabernacle overnight along with staffs of the other 11 tribes. The next morning, all the staffs were still there exactly as they were the night before – except Aaron’s staff which had sprouted leaves, blossoms and almonds. The fruit of blessing!
Supernatural events, whether fatal or inspiring, are not all that make this story difficult. Considered from the vantage point of centuries of Jewish history, this is one extreme example of the disunity that plagues us. “Two Jews, three opinions” is no longer a joke. Sometimes we may wonder how the ancient kingdom of Israel managed to field a disciplined dedicated army to defeat its foes. Didn’t any of the soldiers object to taking orders? Just as well, how does the modern State of Israel marshal its martial forces? Should we expect some upstart lieutenant-colonel to proclaim himself a general and attempt to replace his commander? Or will we soon hear about the captain of a destroyer changing his ordered course and sailing off to Greece? If anything like that happened, there would likely be military penalties. But not a sudden sinkhole to wipe out the offender and all his crew. In our time, with the communications we have today, our enemies are doing their best to dig a much deeper sinkhole. A sinkhole for all the Jewish people. Jewish disunity only helps that effort.
If we take a real interest in our future – whether in America, Israel, Europe, Asia or anywhere else – we need to learn a lesson from the story of Korakh. Two significant lines underscore the message of the Korakh story.
One line comes in the prayer of Moses and Aaron: “Shall one man sin, and G-d turn in anger on the whole community?” We may be responsible for each other, we can and should support each other, but we are first responsible for our own actions. Korakh was the sinner; yet not all the people listened to him. We can disagree, and still share a great heritage and a great destiny.
The other line we will read three weeks from this Sabbath, in Parsha Pinkhas. In just four words, the Torah notes: “Uv’nai Korakh lo maisu — Korakh’s children did not die.” In fact, no less than 11 of the Psalms of David are credited to his descendants. They occupied a place in the Sanctuary as a Levitic family. And we still recite psalms today that begin with the words “A song of the Sons of Korakh.” We need not pass our mistakes along to future generations. Significantly, this message is exactly opposite to Shakespeare’s line: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Not in Judaism. Korakh’s children did not die. They do not share his guilt. We can learn from Korakh that we always have hope.
Ken y’hee rotzon.