Why Did Korach Rebel?
What Really Led To Korach's Rebellion?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Korach’s rebellion is part of a series of mistakes by the Israelite people in this section of Numbers, Bamidbar. This week, Rabbi Fohrman asks us, in addition to our struggle over the actions of Korach, why does this story happen here? What does the context, and language clues, teach us about the larger meaning of the story of Korach’s rebellion.
This week's Parsha tells the tale of a great and terrible division that takes place within the people of Israel just after the sin of the spies.
Why Did Korach Rebel?Korach mounts a challenge to the leadership of Moshe and Aaron, and our Parsha tells that story. The great, overriding question of the story is why of all times does Korach's rebellion happen right now? And why does it have to happen at all? What exactly is Korach's issue with Moshe and Aharon? We may get a clue to all of this from an unlikely source.
Every once in a while names in Scripture have significance. In the Book of Samuel, for example, a king by the name of Nachash attacks Saul, the very first king of Israel. Can it be a coincidence that his name just happens to mean snake? There was something snake-like about the attack. Was there something Korach-like about Korach's rebellion? What would the name Korach mean if it were a word?
What Is the Meaning of the Name Korach?As it turns out Kuf, Reish, Chet in Biblical Hebrew actually refers to an ancient Amorite mourning practice, a way of expressing grief. Karcha means a bald spot, where you would intentionally tear out the hair of your head above the place between your eyes, as a way of expressing terrible, terrible grief.
The Torah prohibits this:
Loh tasimu karcha bein eineichem la'meit – do not create these bald spots on your heads for the dead.
Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem – take care of yourselves, you're the children of G-d.
One's first impulse is to say, what could ancient Amorite mourning practices have to do with Korach's rebellion? Except if you keep on reading those verses in Deuteronomy 14, you'll find that it's not just Karcha – the bald spot – that reminds you of Korach here, it's everything else in the passage too.
Connections to Korach's RebellionLet's go back to Korach for a minute. What was Korach's argument that he lodged against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon?
Rav lachem – it's too much for you this leadership thing;
Ki kol ha'eidah kulam kedoshim u'betocham Hashem – the entire congregation is holy and within them is G-d.
All right, so Korach here makes reference to the holiness of the community, but here's the strange thing, so does Deuteronomy 14. Right after it talks about the Karcha it says these words; Ki am kadosh atah laHashem Elokecha – for you are a holy people unto G-d. And it's not just that. Right after Korach the man references the holiness of the people, he says; Madu'ah titnasu al kehal Hashem - how come you have raised yourself up over the people?
Turns out we've got a very similar idea in that verse in Deuteronomy 14 as well. Right after the talk about the Karcha – the bald spot – and the Am kadosh atah – the holiness of the nation – it says:
And G-d has treasured you;
Mikol ha'amim – from among the nations;
Asher al pnei ha'adamah – upon the face of the earth.
Again, the notion of one selected from among many, it's eerily similar. The Torah seems to be saying if you want to understand Korach, you've got to understand that ancient Amorite mourning practice. What does Korach, of all things, have to do with grief?
The Motivations Behind Korach's RebellionLet me chart a little theory here for you that has to do with that question we asked about before, what was the motivation behind his rebellion? If you look carefully, I think you'll find that there were several different layers to his motivation.
Let's read some text here, I'll show you what I mean. Level 1, Korach's overt words. The entire nation is holy, why do you lord yourself over them like this? Now if I had to summarize that argument to you, I could do it in one word, communism. We're all equal, we're all holy, we don't need any leaders. So at face value that sounds like his argument, but if you keep on reading the text begins to tell you another story.
Vayishma Moshe vayipol al panav – Moshe hears what Korach says, falls on his face and replies;
Hame'at mikem – was it really too little for you Korach;
Ki hivdil Elokei Yisrael etchem mei'adat Yisrael – that as a Levite G-d set you aside in your tribe;
L'hakriv etchem eilav – to be close to Him;
La'avod et avodat Mishkan – to serve in the Tabernacle.
Was that really too little for you,
U'bikashtem gam kehunah – that you also want the priesthood?
Okay so that's Moshe's retort.
But I'll tell you something if I'm Korach and I'm listening to that, I would have said, Moshe did you hear what I said? I'm not interested in being the leader myself, my whole point is there should be no leader. But interestingly, Korach doesn't say that, he accepts Moshe's premise, why does he accept that? Unless, Moshe got his motivation right at some level.
What Is the Meaning of Korach's Words?Evidently Moshe heard something in Korach's words that was a little deeper than what Korach said overtly. Overtly it's there shouldn't be any leader, covertly it's maybe I should be the leader? It's like George Orwell back in Animal Farm: "All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others". Communism is the veneer, power is the goal.
Except that if you listen a little bit more closely and you keep on reading, you'll find even a deeper level of motivation that saturates the words of Korach and his followers, and it's here that we get to the idea of grief or mourning.
From Korach to Datan and AviramListen to Moshe's next dialogue with Korach's prime followers Datan and Aviram. Moshe calls to these men but they answer:
Loh na'aleh – we will not go up to see you;
Hame'at ki he'elitanu me'eretz zavat chalav u'devash – was it not enough for you that you brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, out of Egypt;
Lahamiteinu bamidbar – to kill us here in this desert?
Ki tistarer aleinu gam histarer – that you also want to rule over us like this?
Loh na'aleh – we're not going up to meet you.
Listen to that word going up, it's the first thing they say, we're not going up to meet you. It's the last thing they say, we're not going up to meet you. Why? Because you have failed us. What was your central promise? That you would bring us up to a land of milk of honey but the opposite has happened, hasn't it? Egypt, that was the land of milk and honey, this is just a barren desert and here is where we're going to die.
Moses is the one who said to Korach; Hame'at mikem – is it not enough for you Levi, that you also want to be a Kohen, and here Datan and Aviram it's like, oh; Hame'at ki he'elitanu – wasn't it enough for you Moses that you took us out of this land of milk and honey? They're viciously angry.
If you have to characterize their motivation here, their motivation is not communism. Level 1, their motivation is not even power for themselves; Level 2, it's just rage at Moshe and Aharon for having brought them here to the desert to die. This isn't the first time that people have complained in the desert about begin brought there to die, the difference is this time it's real.
You see, the people had always talked about their fear that they might die in the desert. In the sin of the spies just before Parshat Korach they had talked about their fear that they would die trying to conquer the land. But you see, that lack of faith in G-d it had been the last straw, after the people's rejection of G-d's willingness to go before them and help them conquer the land, G-d had decreed that the entire generation currently living would all die in the desert over the next 40 years, none of them would see the land of Israel.
The Grief Behind Korach's RebellionNow here we are in Parshat Korach right after that, wouldn't we need to understand our Parsha in that context? That brings us to Datan and Aviram. If you take people who had expected to go into the land and now all of a sudden it's not a journey of days it's a journey of 40 years until every last one of them dies, they would be grieving wouldn't they? The text actually seems to point us in that direction because it tells us that right after the sin of the spies the people were mourning; Vayitablu ha'am me'od – they mourned very greatly. But what form did that grief take?
Initially, the text tells us, denial. Right after the people grieved very much the text tells us:
Vayashkimu baboker – they got up in the morning;
Vaya'alu – there's that word again – and they went up;
El rosh ha'har – to the top of the mountain;
Hinenu va'alinu – here we are, we're going up;
El hamakom asher amar Hashem – to the place that G-d has promised to us;
Ki chatanu – because we have sinned.
It's not real this decree, right? Moshe says, no, no, it's real, you can't do that, don't go up and attack them, G-d won't be with you, you'll get decimated. And in fact that's what happened, and they are decimated, they're repulsed by the inhabitants of Canaan.
That was the first response of mourning, but what's the next stage? Once denial doesn't work anymore the next stage is anger, how could this happen to me? Sometimes that anger is controlled, but it can get out of hand, and that's this week's Parsha.
That same word that was used for denial, the first stage of grief; Hinenu va'alinu – here we are, we're going up, now becomes transmuted into an anger word in the mouths of Datan and Aviram; Loh na'aleh – we're not going up. It's not just we're not going up to you Moses, we've come to grips with the truth, we're not going up to the land, and therefore we're angry as anything. We're going to die here in this desert and it's all your fault.
Was it Moshe's fault? Not really. But that's the way blind rage works and that's what Deuteronomy 14, the Karcha, was talking about too.
The Meaning of the Parallels to KorachDon't tear your hair out when you mourn, don't mutilate your body; there is an impulse that can turn mourning into rage and the rage can turn against one's own self. When an individual attacks himself you attack your head – the leader of your body – you tear your hair out. When a community mourns the loss of itself, as was the case here, it attacks its head too. That was Moshe and Aharon, the head was what they were attacking in Korach's rebellion.
When you tear the hair out of your head it's a way of punishing yourself, the Torah says, don't do that, it's a pagan, Amorite custom, don't allow blind rage to come back and destroy you. Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem – you are children of G-d, you're better than that.
The Torah, through the connections between Korach and the Karcha, tells us about the deepest levels of motivation behind Korach's rebellion; grief that became communally self-destructive. The prohibition against putting that Karcha – that bald spot in your head as a mark of mourning, is paired with another mourning prohibition as well; Loh titgodedu – do not slash yourselves in mourning, another form of self-mutilation.
But Chazal – the Sages – had a very strange way of interpreting that. They said, not only does it teach you not to self-mutilate in mourning, it teaches you something else; Loh ta'asu agudot, agudot – you shouldn't make yourselves into small, little groups. At face value you look and you say, what does this mourning practice of slashing yourself – Loh titgoded – have to do with – Loh ta'asu agudot, agudot – not making yourself into little groups?
The Sages saw something, there's a link between the Karcha – the bald spot – and Korach, and the Sages extended that link to Loh titgodedu as well.
Relating to Korach's Rebellion TodayYes, Korach was grieving, he was attacking the head, but what was the effect of attacking the head? He was dividing the community against itself. Don't do that, the Sages say, don't slash yourself and don't slash your community apart. So when you read Deuteronomy 14 the simple meaning of the text refers to individual mourning practices, making this bald spot, slashing yourself. But the larger meaning of the text refers to communal mourning for communal loss.
The Torah is warning us here about a deep human tendency buried in our soul. Shiva – the seven-day mourning period after death – how many families have found themselves tragically pitted against one another during this time? How come Uncle Bob and Aunt Marlene are struggling so viciously over Grandpa's favorite chair? Before you know it, Uncle Bob and Aunt Marlene aren't talking to each other and neither are their kids.
The tragedy is they're not really even angry at each other; Korach wasn't even angry at Moshe either, it was grief. Stay away from that kind of grief, resist at all costs the tragedy of Korach.
Thanks for watching. For last year's Korach video click the link in the top right corner. Enjoy and Shabbat Shalom.