B’Midbar 16 - 18


Prepared for Can-Am Havurah Weekend 2007

David B. Brooks (Adath Shalom Congregation - Ottawa)


This week the portion of The Torah – the Parashah – that we read is Korakh.  Most of the action takes place in Chapter 16 of B’Midbar (Numbers).  It describes a rebellion in the desert and the resulting divine retribution against the rebels.  It is, for me, one of the most troubling of the many stories that emerge from the 40-year period between Mount Sinai and Joshua’s entry into Eretz Ysrael.  It troubles me because it begins with a great question and ends up not answering it.  With apologies to Rabbi Kushner, we might title this d’var: When Bad People Ask Good Questions.


Let me set the stage.  The Israelites have been moving across the Sinai desert for some time now.  They are almost ready to cross the Jordan River.  It is only at that point that  political leadership, which is what this rebellion is all about, is worth seeking.  The core of the rebellion comes from two tribes:  Levites under Korakh, and Reubenites under Dathan and Abiram.  They had separate grievances, but they could work together because, if you go back to the early part of B’Midbar (2:10), you will find that Korakh (who was from the Kohathite clan of Levi) and Reuben camped together on south side of the Tabernacle.  Apparently not all of them spent their evenings singing songs around the campfire.  However, the rebels included leaders from several if not all the tribes, “men of name,” as one reads in the text.  In short, this was a serious rebellion.


I am not going to deal with the Reubenite rebellion.  Reuben was Jacob’s first born, and his descendants had held a grievance since they lost the birthright – in effect, hereditary leadership – to Judah at the time of Joseph’s deathbed blessing.  Reubenite rebels died along with Korakh and his followers but in a different way and at a later time.


The Levites challenged Moses and Aaron because they felt sidelined in the priestly duties, which, in that time before Israel had kings, also conveyed political leadership.  Korakh asked a pair of very fundamental questions:  “Are we not all equally holy?  What makes you two so special?”  Korakh did not cite the origin of these questions, but they come from the Highest Authority.  At Sinai, God had told Moses that the Israelites should be a kingdom of priests: 


כהנים ממלכת לי תהיו ואתם       (Shm 19:6)


Later, in Parashat Kedoshim, which is the middle chapter of the middle book, Moses is told by God to instruct them:  “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy”


אלקיכם ה׳ אני קדוש כי תהיו קדשים (Vyk 19:2).


There is no singling out of any tribe or individual for special status.  This is the charge given to the Jewish people, the beginning of our mandate to be a light to the nations.

It is entirely possible that Korakh is not serious about his questions.  He would not be the first demagogue to use populist arguments in a grab for power.  Almost all, rabbinic commentators condemn Korakh for his leadership of the rebellion.  However, they cannot deny that the questions deserve an answer.  Rabbi Plaut is one of the few who argues that we should at least listen to Korakh, for he raises “the eternal tension between authority and freedom” (Chumash, p. 1133; see also note 15, p. 1750).


How does Moses answer Korakh?  He does not even try.  He totally ignores the first comment about the whole congregation being holy, and responds to the second by saying that God will show that he, Moses, deserves the leadership.  Indeed, he asks God not merely to wipe out the rebels but to do so in a spectacular way so that it will be evident to everyone that Moses leads with divine guidance.  God complies with Moses’s request, and after a sort of trial by fire pans, the earth opens up and down go the rebels.  Yet, as Rabbi Plaut puts it, “The argument Korah (sic) presented was not blotted out with the drastic divine response, . . .” (Chumash, 1133).


What is going on here?  This is not the first rebellion in the desert, though it appears to be the first about political leadership.  Just a few weeks back, in  Parashat B’Ha-alotkha God hears complaints about the lack of meat and, with no back-and-forth at all, sends down “fire” – probably lightening – and wipes out the complainers.  Later in the same Parashah, Moses tells God that he has had it with leading the Israelites, and that he wants to die.  He even makes what is for me the most chutzpadik remark in all of Torah when he question whether even God can provide enough meat for the Israelites in the desert.  Does God get angry?  Not at all; God takes a parental approach and advises Moses to build a Council of Elders to share his religious duties – a parallel to the council Jethro had earlier advised to share Moses’ administrative duties.  Still later, Miriam speaks out about Moses’ conduct, and, though God does chastise her, it is rather mild.  In this case, without even listening to Korakh or helping Moses frame an answer to the questions, God does away with the rebels.  As I said, What is going on here?


Typically when one comes to troubling issues in Torah study, the first place to go is the early Midrash – the collections known as, eg, Genesis Rabbah (“Genesis R.”) or Sifre and Sifra.  That approach will not help in this case.  Once the rabbis decided that person A was good, they fill the Midrash with examples and stories to mitigate any apparent errors; per contra, once they decided that person B was bad, they fille the Midrash with stories and examples to make that person even worse.  It is a bit like old cowboy movies where the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black.


Korakh, according to the Midrash, wore a great big black hat.  The rabbis conclude that he had been working behind the scenes for many years to overthrow Moses and Aaron.  What we read in The Torah is only the culmination of a long-standing plot.  Therefore,

the execution of Korakh and company is not so troubling.  God is merely acting like an earthly ruler putting down a potential threat to Authority (with a capital “A”).  The punishment for High Treason is death, which is exactly what the rebels get.

But something is still troubling!  There was nothing like a trial, nor any response to that part of Korakh’s challenge that is legitimate.  Now, it is a fundamental precept of Judaism that God is Just, but that we human beings may not be sufficiently aware to understand Divine Justice.  Most famously, we learn in Mishnah (Pirke Avot 4:15), the Lessons of the Ancestors, that it is not given to us to know why some good people suffer and some bad people prosper.  We could stop there and say that is the case with Divine Justice and Divine Mercy in the desert.  However, it is not a very satisfactory answer and certainly not adequate in a Havurah devoted to the Jewish Renewal movement.


Let me therefore offer two suggestions of what we can learn from the alternating examples of justice and mercy, or, in Rabbi Plaut’s terms, authority and freedom.  One suggestion involves statecraft, but the other applies to each of us individually.


First, perhaps the story of Korakh teaches us that there are times when justice and  authority must take precedence over mercy and freedom. The baseline remains mercy and freedom, but, when the political situation is fragile, constraints may be necessary.  Even the most democratic nations typically limit democratic rights in wartime to the greater good of national defense.  Certainly, it is a very dangerous lesson, one that cannot be invoked too often and one that must always be qualified in extent and limited in time.  Think of the Japanese sent to concentration camps in both the United States and Canada during World War II.  Think more recently of restrictions imposed in the “war against terrorism,” and of the differences in the American and the Canadian responses.  At the time of Korakh’s rebellion, the Israelites were, still 12 tribes that were learning to be one nation.  Strong leadership was necessary, and both Moses and God acted on that need.


Second, Korakh may have asked good questions, but he did not ask them in a helpful way.  Perhaps the second lesson is that there are ways to ask and ways not to ask questions.  Unfortunately for him, Korakh posed his questions in a way that divided rather than united people.  If Korakh had put his question forward in the Council of Elders, things might have been different.  As it was, we suspect that Korakh neither wanted nor expected an answer; he just wanted a fight.  Sometimes HOW we do things is just as important, and possibly even more telling of our motives, as WHAT we do.


Shabbat Shalom!