Community > Jewish Life > Korach: The Grievances of Korach and Company

Korach: The Grievances of Korach and Company

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department 

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kehath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben took men:

And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown.

And they gathered themselves up against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, ye take too much upon ye, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift (16:1-3).

Who were the two hundred and fifty men who followed Korach, Dathan, and Abiram to rebel against Moses who led the children of Israel out of Egypt through the desert, the prophet of the Lord who received the Torah at Sinai? What was their grievance?

According to Iba Ezra, this rebel band contained grumblers and malcontents of all kinds. Included were Levites who felt aggrieved at being appointed to minister to the priests, Reubenites who considered they had been deprived of the birthright which had been transferred to the tribe of Joseph.

According to Iba Ezra they suspected Joshua (an Ephraimite) of using his influence to favor his own tribe over others. Then there were the firstborn of Israel who felt aggrieved because the privilege of priesthood had been taken from them and granted to the Levites who had not served the golden calf. It is easy to fan the flame of discontent and such a procedure would be made unusually easy if we accept Nahmanides timing of the rebellion straight after the incident of the spies.

Nahmanides states:

Were anyone to have questioned Moses authority at any other time, the people would have stoned him outright, since they ardently loved Moses their leader and obeyed him. Consequently Korach put up with the high office filled by Aaron the firstborn with the lofty station of the Levites and all Moses deeds.

But when they arrived at the wilderness of Paran and the Isralites were burnt at Taberah (Num. 11:1-3) and died at Kibort Hataavah (verses 33-34) and sinned with the spies, the princes of the tribes being killed by the plague and the people condemned to die in the wilderness, then the people became bitter and some began to doubt the wisdom of Moses leadership. it was this moment that Korach found opportune to start his mutiny and this was the significance of his reference to them being brought to be killed in the wilderness.

Korach wished to cannel all this smoldering discontent to his own benefit. But the Torah does not afford us details of the way he went around fanning their discontent against Moses. This our Sages reconstructed for us applying the following verses to the situation.

Happy is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked and in the way of the sinners hath not stood and in the seat of scorners hath not sat. (Psalms 1:1) Commenting on this verse the Midrash (Shoher Tov) states: In the seat of scorners …; this refers to Korach who made scorn of Moses and Aaron. What did Korach do? He assembled all the congregation as it said: “And Korach gathered all the congregation against them;. He began to speak to them words of scorn, saying: ‘There was once a widow in my neighborhood who had two fatherless daughters and one field.

When she came to plough, Moses said to her: “Thou shalt not plough with an ox and an ass together; (Deut. 22:10).” When she came to sow, he said to her “Thou shalt not sow thy field with divers seeds;” (Leviticus 19, 19). When she came to reap and stack the corn, he said to her, “Leave gleanings (leket) the forgotten sheaf (shikhehah) and the corner of the field (pe’ah) for the poor.” When she came to thresh, he said to her, “Give tithes, priestly dues, the first and second tithes.” She justified heaven’s pronouncement and gave him.

What did this poor women do? She went and sold her field, and purchased with the proceeds two lambs, to clothe herself from its shearing and enjoy its products. As soon as they gave birth, Aaron came and said to her: “Give me the firstborn, since the Holy One blessed be He hath said: Every firstborn that shall be born of thy herd and flock, the male one, shalt thou consecrate to the Lord thy God”. She justified heaven’s pronouncement and gave him the offspring.

The time came for shearing and she sheared them – came Aaron and said to her, “Give me the first of the shearing since the Holy One blessed be He said (Deut. 18:3): The first of thy grain, thy wine and oil and the first of the shearing of thy flock shalt thou give to him”. Thereupon she said: “Since I have no more strength to withstand this man, I shall slaughter them and eat them.” As soon as she had slaughtered them, Aaron came and said to her: “Give me the shoulder, two cheeks and maw.” (Deut. 18:3)

Whereupon she said: “Even after I have slaughtered them I am not delivered from his hand. Let them then be forbidden (herem) my use.” Said Aaron to her: “In that case it is all mine since the Holy One said: ‘Every devoted thing (herem – expression of prohibition, exclusion from ordinary usage) in Israel shall be thine.'” (Num. 18:14)

He took them, departed and left her weeping with her two daughters. Such was the lot that befell this unfortunate woman! So much they do in the name of the Holy One blessed be He!

In the above excerpt, the Torah, whose ways are the ways of peace is seen through distorted spectacles. All Korach’s ranting contains the familiar rabble-rousing ingredients of demagogy.

In the first place, there is no constructive criticism of the law, no reasoned argument but merely a hardship story containing personal details regarding how a particular person suffered from the rigors of the law. Naturally, the hero of the story has to be someone whose very name will excite compassion, a widow. Whose heart would not melt at the sight of a widow’s suffering? Yet the Torah’s decree knows no mercy!

Second, the story omits to mention that that same oppressed and wronged widow victimized, as it were, by the cruel decrees of the Torah is together with the orphan and stranger, the subject of very special concern and protective legislation – Thou shalt not take a pledge of a widow’s garment. (Deut. 24:17)

Thou shalt not afflict any widow and the fatherless. (Exodus 22:21)

The very same widow who when she owns property is obliged to give leket, shikhehah, and pe’ah, is entitled to them, when in need.

When thou reapest thy harvest and hast forgotten a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it. It shall be for the stranger, fatherless and widow.

When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless and widow. (Deut. 24:19-20)

Like any demagogue, Korach stresses the obligations rather than the privileges. Just as the taxpayer only sees the burden imposed on him and not the benefits in the way of health, education, public security and other public services that he enjoys in return, so Korach depicts the Torah to the malcontents as demanding, extorting and giving nothing in return.

Third, Korach’s speech does not lack the familiar stock-in-trade of the demagogue, the weapon of personal abuse. Aspersions are cast on the legislator bringing the law or its executor into disrepute. so much they do in the name of the Holy One …

Accordingly, not the Torah was to blame but rather its administrators, Moses and Aaron who had distorted its regulations to suit their own needs, and that of their officials and minions.

This was how our Sages pictured Korach’s methods of misleading the people, of the way he took; implying as Rashi explains took with words;, that is, seduced the people. Many will ask how is it possible to conceive that the people who had been redeemed from slavery, for whom the waves of the sea had parted, who had received the Torah at Sinai, amidst thunders and lightnings, led by the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night – how was it conceivable that a people vouchsafed such miracles could succumb to the guile and abuse of one such as Korach?

This was indeed the case. Though two hundred and fifty officially took the plunge and went over to Korach, many more were influenced by his words, as the succeeding chapters indicate. True: The precepts of the Lord are upright – making glad the heart.

The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. (Psalms 19:9) But the heart of man is crooked and there is no light which man through his stupidity and shortsightedness, cannot succeed in dimming and darkening.