The first words of this weeks Torah portion pose a
question that echoes down the centuries. Korach rises up to challenge the leadership of Moses and the High Priesthood of Aaron, becoming a prototype for self-interested rebels. Some 250 prominent Israelites join him in his revolt. And how does the Torah introduce him? Does it say “Korach spoke….or rose up….or planted a new flag?” No, it says “Korach took” and then proceeds to detail his lineage and the names of the tribal princes who joined him.
And what did he take? It never says.
Obviously this wording challenged others besides Moses, namely many of our Biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra, for example, undertakes to supply what he takes to be a missing word: men. Korach took men; he did not do this alone. Rashi interprets the statement to mean he took status upon himself. As a son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, Korach felt just as much entitled to authority as his first cousins Moses and Aaron who were sons of Amram, Yitzhars brother.
Similarly, the Kli Yokor commentary holds that Korach “took” sides with the Reubenites, who were still angry that their tribe lost its seniority and therefore its leadership role. So Korahs chief lieutenants were Datan and Abiram, princes of the tribe of Reuben.
The Or haHaim approaches the situation differently. Korach “took” himself away. Separated himself from the camp. Set himself apart as a sign of superiority.
One meaning is very clear. Korach took the Jewish people for a highly dramatic ride in his own time. And he was certainly not the last rebel to fire controversy in Jewish life.
Korachs rebellion ends with him and his followers dropping into a sudden sinkhole with their houses and families. As if the “earth opened its mouth and swallowed them!” And all the people flee the place, hearing their cries as they fall into the pit.
Couldnt happen? Or could it? This years natural disasters in many parts of the world open a question about the fate of Korach & Co. And our modern examples are not prompted by any human rebellion. As far as we know.
How does Korachs arrogant challenge and shocking defeat impact Jewish history? Perhaps the most picturesque comment on the whole story comes in another story, told by one Rabbah bar Bar Khana, a rabbi in the Talmud known for his tall tales. He says:
I was travelling in the desert, and an Arab took me to a spot where there was a crack in the ground. I bent down and put my ear to the crack. And I heard the voices of Korach and his followers calling out: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars!”
What a way to lose an election.
Two weeks from now we will read a fascinating P.S. to the story of Korach, where the Torah states simply: “The children of Korach did not die.”
No they did not. They grew up to sing the Psalms of David in Solomons Temple in Jerusalem. In fact some of those psalms bear their name. They transcended Korachs mistakes. They survived his failed rebellion. They made a better choice.
The sages of Pirkey Avot compare Korachs controversy to that of Hillel and Shammai. In Talmudic discourse, Hillel and Shammai agreed on almost nothing, yet their controversy had lasting value because it was “for the sake of Heaven” — for a high purpose. Korachs rebellion had no future because it came from jealousy, power-greed and falsehood.
Yet, his children did not die. The pattern of Korach keeps repeating. I venture to say we all know families where one generation rebelled against Jewish life, choosing assimilation or communism or apostasy — and became lost, swallowed by the world. And then their children, or perhaps their grandchildren, rediscover their Jewish roots. They find they enjoy brightening their table with Shabat candles. They find intellectual excitement in learning Torah. They find great charm in Jewish music. They find a loving kind of fulfillment in sharing Jewish ceremonies. And they find exactly what the rebel ancestors threw away — still there, speaking to them loud and clear. As if those ancestors were calling out to them through time: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we were wrong.!”
Rebellion can be valuable. It can strengthen us. We can only hope that any controversy it produces will be an “argument in the name of Heaven.” Because then we have a chance to resolve it productively and mold a Jewish future that can still sing our songs, as the family of Korach did.