Lessons from a failed rebellion in the desert


If you have been keeping up with our weekly Torah portions, you know that we are now following the adventures of the ancient Israelites as they travel the Wilderness of Sinai. Moses, as leader and chief honcho of the 12 tribes, must bear the constant murmurings and rebelliousness of the people.

In this week’s portion, called Korach, we read about the most celebrated rebel in the Bible – namely, Korach.

Korach, who happens to be Moses’ cousin, tries to usurp Moses’ authority by claiming that he, Korach, has as much right to lead the people as Moses does.

In addition to his words, Korach relies on his two cohorts, Datan and Aviram, who, as members of the eldest tribe, Reuben, claim that they too deserve to take on leadership roles, since they are descendants of the first-born son of Jacob.

This rebellion was the most serious that Moses and Aaron had to face in the entire 40 years that they wandered in the desert. And, like so many other rebellious efforts, this one ends in failure.

God comes to the rescue of the good guys, and the bad ones are dramatically destroyed. Some are literally swallowed up by the earth. Others are burned, and still others are struck with a plague.

Oddly, the Torah is silent about the true motives for Korach’s rebellion. Aside from his obvious desire to participate in leading the people, or his finger-pointing attitude that seems to say to Moses, “what makes you so high and mighty?,” we know little about what drove Korach to challenge Moses’ leadership.

What we do know is what Korach actually said: “Since all the community is holy, and the Lord is in their midst, why then do you [Moses] raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” In other words, if we accept for the moment that Korach is posing a legitimate question, he is saying the following: “Moses, here is a challenging thought – if God is indeed everywhere, and thus by definition within our midst, then whoever happens to be the leader will have God’s support.

“In addition, if all of us are in fact holy, why do we need someone like you to instruct us in the laws, which we don’t need since we are all holy anyway?”

If we stop and think about it, and give Korach the benefit of the doubt, it is a fair question, one that begs for a meaningful answer.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, proclaimed that Korach posed an insoluble contradiction – that we are all supposed to be holy, yet, alas, we will never truly be a holy people.

Rashi, the famous interpreter, seemed to think that Korach was not so ingenious. He argues that when Korach said “we are all a holy people,” he simply meant that since the entire congregation witnessed the giving of the Torah at Sinai, everyone should have equal rights in assuming the leadership.

Still, there are others who try to paint a better picture of Korach. They interpret his words as: “Moses, since we are all bathed in the holiness of God, why do you assume the leadership to yourself? Let us, who are also holy, help you.”

So, was Korach being rebellious, or was he merely questioning? Was he genuine, or was he a phony? Was Korach on God’s side or was he on Korach’s side?

Whatever we ultimately conclude, one thing is for sure – the challenge that Korach presented was not so much in what he said, but in how he said it.

(As it happened, Korach’s family did continue to serve with high distinction, and one of his descendants was the great prophet Samuel. Ten of the 150 psalms are attributed to the sons of Korach, and many of his offspring continued to function in the temple court.)

That Korach’s actions resulted in a great punishment reflects the way he went about letting Moses know his thoughts. It seems that the process was punished, more than his actual words.

There are some terrific lessons here:

• Korach spoke up, which is good; but he only spoke up for his own benefit, which is not so good.

• Korach associated himself with members of the community, which is good; but these members were not community-minded, which is not so good. As someone once said, your companions are a good reflection of who you are.

• Korach established himself as a spokesman for the people, which is good. But most people ignored him, and his words, which for him was not so good.

Korach forgot, or did not know, a basic law of community: Leadership is not something you just ask for and are given. Just as the man on TV used to say, “You have to earn it!”

ETHAN ADLER is rabbi of Temple Beth David, in Narragansett.