Dirty Politics - Crises in the Coalition

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





Dirty Politics - Crises in the Coalition


by Rav Zvi Shimon



I. Power to the People


            The Israelites often complain to Moses about their conditions in the desert. However, Moses' position as leader of the people is never questioned or challenged. Moses is the uncontested leader. In our parasha this truism is challenged. A party arises which dares question that which was previously accepted by all:


"Now Korach, son of Yizhar son of Kehat son of Levi, he took himself along with Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet - descendants of Reuven - to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.  They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, 'You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?'

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.  Then he spoke to Korach and all his company, saying, 'Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen."(Numbers 16:1-5)


            What is the cause for the rebellion? Korach reproaches Moses asserting that "All the community, all of them, are holy and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) explains this claim as follows:


"All the community are holy"- "All of them heard the commandments at Sinai from the mouth of the Mighty One."


            The people experienced God's revelation at Sinai. They heard God's commandments and are thus holy. Therefore, they do not need Moses to mediate between God and themselves. God reveals Himself directly to the people.


            Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) further elaborates Korach's claim:


"Korach, Datan and Aviram presented themselves before Moses, and after they had collected two hundred and fifty men whom they had incited to support their reproaches and demands, spoke as representing the masses. ...First the assertion: that the whole community, and indeed not 'kula' (all of it - the community) as a unit, but 'kulam' (all of them) in all its individual members, is holy and God is present in their midst: every individual of the six hundred thousand is holy and therefore near to God and so no PRIESTS are required to bring God near to them by expressing their thoughts and feelings in offerings on their behalf; and it is just to these six hundred thousand and not to any one person that God has promised His Presence, so that He requires no PROPHETS to make His Word reach these six hundred thousand.  Hence, God is near to all of them and they are all near to Him therefore no Aaron and no Moses are required, hence the whole position of Moses and Aaron is a pretentious arrogance based on a false foundation.  And further, if individuals are required at the head of the nation for national affairs in relation to God, why just Aaron and Moses, why not leave it to the nation to choose their leaders, what right have Aaron and Moses to place themselves at the head of the nation?"


            Rabbi Hirsch points to the peculiar wording of Korach's claim: "All the community are holy, all of THEM.” Korach refers to the community in the plural, "all of THEM ARE holy" instead of stating "all of IT (the community) IS holy.” Rabbi Hirsch infers from this that Korach wished to emphasize the spiritual eminence of every INDIVIDUAL in Israel. God is close to every single Israelite and there is, therefore, no need for religious leadership. Every individual is capable of forging his own unique relationship with God, of experiencing revelation and of deciding the appropriate manner of worshipping God. Even if a leader is required, perhaps for pragmatic purposes, the leader should be chosen by the people.


            Korach is thus preaching two of the central tenets of modern Western Civilization, democracy and individualism. Let every individual create his own relationship with God, and if a leader is required, let him be elected by the people. Korach may thus be viewed as the father of democracy, a man of awesome vision. He is a fighter for equality and freedom, a biblical forerunner to Thomas Jefferson. Why then is he regarded as a sinner, a rebel against God?


            Our Sages offer the following homiletical interpretation of the falsity of Korach's claim:


"'In the morning the Lord will show' ... Moses said to them: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, has assigned certain boundaries in His world.  Can you, for example, fuse day and night?  Scripture, in reference to this, says at the very beginning, 'And there was evening and there was morning' (Gen. 1:5), 'And God divided the light from the darkness' (ib. 4) in order that it might be of service to the world.  And just as He divided the light from the darkness in order that it might be of service to the world, so He separated Israel from the nations; as it says, 'I have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine' (Lev. 20:26).  In the same manner also He set Aaron apart; as it says, 'And Aaron was separated that he should be sanctified as most holy' (I Chron. 23:13).  If, then, you are able to confuse the distinction which He has made between the light and the darkness, you will be able to annul this also.  For this reason he said to them: 'In the morning the Lord will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him.'" (Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 18:7)


            Why is God's demonstration that Moses is the chosen leader delayed till the following morning. Why is it not immediate? Our Sages explain that Moses hoped Korach and his followers would, with daybreak, experience a change of heart and forgo the rebellion. The differentiation between night and day refutes the philosophical assumptions underlying Korach's claim. God's distinction between night and day is a manifestation of the fact that not everyone is on a similar spiritual level. Just as God distinguished between light and darkness so too did He distinguish between the nation of Israel and the other peoples of the earth and likewise did He distinguish Aaron from the rest of the tribe of Levi. The idea of differentiation is the central theme of creation and is continued in God's relation to humanity. Korach's claim is absolutely baseless for it undermines the choosing of Israel from amongst the nations. A rejection of the concept of differentiation is a rejection of the essence of the act of creation and of the mission of the people of Israel. Moses hoped that Korach would see from the onset of night and the dawning of a new day that there is a qualitative difference between individuals and that God determines those best suited for leadership positions.


            Although Korach's claim that all the people of Israel are equally holy sounds noble and just, it is actually naive and fallacious. Man might be incapable of fully evaluating the relative greatness of individuals but that does not deny the existence of differences. The Torah's quest for human perfection assumes man's capacity and need to build and improve himself. This, in turn, leads to the inevitable conclusion that some people will be more successful in improving themselves than others. Man is not naturally holy but must strive to achieve the highest possible degree of holiness. God identifies those closest to Him and chooses them to lead the people.


II. Power Hungry


            Let us now return to the continuation of the narrative:


            "'You have gone too far, sons of Levi!'


Moses said further to Korach, 'Hear me, sons of Levi.  Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord's Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them?  Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?  Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together.  For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?'


Moses sent for Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, but they said, 'We will not come!  Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness that you would also lord over us? ... We will not come!'"(Numbers 16:8-14)


            Moses reacts not only to Korach's charge by promising God's intervention on the following morning; he also responds directly to Korach and to Datan and Aviram. However, Moses' response to Korach does not relate to Korach's charges that the whole nation is holy and has no need for Moses. Rather, Moses reproves Korach and his clan for not being satisfied with their distinguished status as Levites and seeking also the priesthood. What is the connection between Korach's charge and Moses' response?


            The Bekhor Schor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Schor, France, 12 century) offers the following explanation:


"From Moses' response [to Korach] 'do you seek the priesthood too?'(16:10) you may infer that [Korach] was vying for the priesthood, but he professed to speak on behalf of the whole community so that they would accept his words and not suspect him of being motivated by self-interest."


            Moses understood Korach's real motives. Under the cloak of representing the public interest, Korach seeks the satisfaction of his own selfish interests. Korach is not interested in the good of the people but functions out of pure jealousy and honor-seeking. He is the prototype of the sinister, yet polished, politician who uses empty rhetoric championing the cause of the people when he is interested only in self-advancement and positions of power.


            Korach's real motives are exposed in the following interpretation of our sages:


"What moved him to start a quarrel?  He was moved to it by the fact that Elizaphan the son of his father's brother, was appointed prince over his family; as it says, 'And the prince of the father's house of the families of the Kehatites being Elizaphan the son of Uziel' (Num. 3:30).  Korach argued: My father was one of four brothers; as it says, 'And the sons of Kehat: Amram and Yizhar and Hebron and Uziel' (Ex. 6:18).  As for Amram, the firstborn, his son attained to greatness and Moses to royalty.  Who then should rightly take the next office?  Is it not the next in age?  It is said, 'And the sons of Kehat: Amram and Yizhar.'  Now I, being the son of Yizhar, should by right be the prince of the families.  Yet Moses appointed the son of Uziel!  Shall the youngest of my father's brothers be superior to me?  Behold, I shall dispute his decision and put to naught all that has been arranged by him." (Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 18:2)


            Korach was disappointed over not being appointed prince of the family of Kehat and his younger cousin, Elizaphan, receiving this position instead (see 3:30). His bitterness led to his rebellion against the whole leadership and his attempt to seize the reigns of power. What about the rest of Korach's followers? What motivated the two hundred and fifty men of repute to join Korach in his rebellion? This question is intricately connected to a different question; who were these two hundred and fifty prominent Israelites?


            Rabbeinu Chananel (Rabbi Chananel ben Hushiel, Tunisia, ?-1055/56) offers the following answer:


"All these people who assembled [against Moses] were Levites of the same tribe as Korach, this being the reason for the expressions [by Moses]:'you take too much upon you, you sons of Levi; Hear now, you sons of Levi.'  Perhaps they thought that their whole tribe had been chosen for the priesthood, and that it was Moses of his own accord who gave the honor to his brother."


            Inferring from the repeated mention of the tribe of Levi in Moses' answer, Rabbeinu Chananel concludes that the bulk of the discontent stemmed from the Levites, Moses' own tribe. Although they themselves enjoyed special status and were responsible for certain functions in the Sanctuary, they were still unsatisfied. They were not content with being second to the 'kohanim' (priests). They wanted an immediate promotion. They were unaware that it was God, and not Moses, who determined Aaron's selection as High Priest.


            The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) comments that this is the reason why the Torah goes back three generations in describing Korach's lineage; "Korach son of Yizhar, son of Kehat son of Levi" (16:1). This is highly unusual since the Torah usually suffices with stating just the father! However, in this instance, the Torah wished to stress the fact that Korach was a Levi to inform us that the Levites were the source and cause of the rebellion.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) rejects Rabbeinu Chananel's identification of the two hundred and fifty followers of Korach:


"But God forbid that there should be in the tribe of the ministers of our God 'two hundred and fifty men' - of the most distinguished [of the people], and 'princes' - who were 'sons of rebellion,' rejecting their leader, the greatest of their tribe, and murmuring against God!  And [furthermore], if these [rebels] were only of that tribe [of Levi, as Rabbeinu Chananel wrote], then all the tribes of Israel would not have murmured on the next day [after the rebels were killed] saying, 'You have killed the people of the Eternal,' (17:6) since not one of their own tribe died, [and those who did die were] only of Moses' and Aaron's tribe.  Similarly the sign of the rod (17:16-24) also proves that the controversy embraced all tribes of Israel.  In addition, Scripture expressly states, '[and they rose up in the face of Moses] with certain men of the children of Israel,' (16:2) in order to point out that the men were from all the tribes, not only from the two tribes [previously] mentioned [Reuben and Levi]."


            If they were not Levites, who were they? The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) suggests a different possibility:


"This incident [of Korach's rebellion] happened in the wilderness of Sinai when the firstborns were exchanged [for the Levites] and the Levites were separated [to do the Divine service in the Tent of Meeting], for [some] Israelites thought that Moses our master did this of his own accord so that he could bestow greatness upon his brother [Aaron] and on the children of Kehat who were his relatives, and on all the Levites, since they were of his family.  The Levites [nevertheless] joined the conspiracy against him [Moses] because they were 'given to Aaron and to his sons,' and Datan and Aviram [who were of the tribe of Reuben] joined in the rebellion because Moses took away the right of the firstborn from their ancestor, Reuben. Korach too was a firstborn... and the chieftains of the community were firstborns...and the conclusive proof [to this interpretation] is the verse "for all the community are holy" (16:3). This hints to the firstborn who are holy as is written "Consecrate to me every firstborn" (Exodus 13:2) and they were [originally] the priests who served God and the prominent of the congregation."


            The Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that Korach's rebellion took place much earlier, in the Sinai desert, when the Levites were selected to replace the firstborn as the servants of God (see Numbers 3:11). This is in accordance with the Ibn Ezra's assumption that the Torah is not chronologically ordered. Korach's rebellion takes place well before the sin of the spies. It is a reaction to the selection of the Levites to replace the firstborns. Korach's followers included Levites who were unwilling to be subservient to Aaron. However, the majority of Korach's support did not stem from Levites but rather from the firstborn.


            They could not accept the loss of their status as the spiritual leaders of the people. They believed that this was their birthright, an automatic privilege belonging to them. Datan and Aviram were from the tribe of Reuben, Jacob's firstborn. They believed that they were entitled to a leadership position by virtue of their belonging to the tribe descending from Jacob's firstborn. Korach was also a firstborn and could not tolerate the fact the Elizaphan, his younger cousin, was chosen as prince of the family of Kehat. The two hundred and fifty additional followers were mostly disgruntled firstborns who felt that their position as leaders was usurped by Moses.


            The underlying doctrine behind the rebellion is the belief that leadership is a birthright. It is not earned through personal virtue and noble character but inherited at birth. This is the traditional conception of royalty and the manner in which leaders in the ancient world and well after, were determined. Korach and the other firstborn believed that they were deserving of prominent positions. They felt that they were being cheated of their inheritance. They did not inculcate the Torah's approach to leadership: There are no predetermined rules guiding the selection of a leader. Even though he was younger, Jacob was chosen over Esau since he was deemed more worthy of building the nation of Israel. Moses and Aaron were also selected due to their righteous and noble characters. They were the most suitable for leading the people of Israel. Moses, himself, was younger than his brother Aaron but was nevertheless chosen to lead the people. God chooses he who is most deserving and worthy.


            The Ramban, however, rejects the Ibn Ezra's position that Korach's rebellion took place earlier, while the Israelites were still in the Sinai desert:


"Now all is based on the opinion of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra [himself] who has said in many places, as it pleases him, that there is no strict chronological order in the [narrative of the] Torah, but I have already written that in my opinion the whole Torah follows the chronological sequence, except for those places where Scripture [itself] expressly states the "earlier" and the "later," [event] and even then it is [only changed] for a particular purpose and for good reason..  But this matter [i.e., the rebellion of Korach] happened 'in the wilderness of Paran,' in 'Kadesh Barnea,' after the incident of the spies [and not, as Ibn Ezra wrote, before the sending of the spies]. ...

Now as long as Israel was in the wilderness of Sinai no evil happening befell them, for even after the incident of the [golden] calf, which was a serious and well-known sin, those who died [as a punishment] were few, and the people were saved by Moses' prayer when he 'fell down before the Eternal for forty days and forty nights.'  Thus they loved Moses as [they loved] themselves, and they obeyed him, so that had anybody rebelled against Moses at that time, the people would have stoned him.  Therefore Korach endured the greatness of Aaron [when he   was appointed high priest], and the firstborns accepted [without protest] the high status of the Levites, and all [the other] acts of Moses.    Therefore Korach found it an opportune occasion to contest Moses' deeds, thinking that the people would [readily] listen to him."


            There is a fundamental disagreement between the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra regarding the organization of the Torah. According to the Ibn Ezra the Torah is not chronological. One cannot ascertain the date of an event recounted in the Torah based on its location in Scripture. The Torah is organized thematically and not chronologically. According to the Ramban the Torah is fundamentally chronological and unless explicitly stated otherwise, the text is assumed to be chronological. Thus, based on the progression of the narrative, the Ramban asserts that Korach's rebellion took place after the sin of the spies. In fact, the rebellion is actually a direct result of the aftermath of the sin of the spies. Following God's decision to delay the Israelite's entry into the land of Israel until the expiration of the generation which left Egypt, the general mood in the camp is very gloomy. The people suffer one setback after another and large numbers of the nation are killed for their sins. What began as a march of hope to the promised land turns into an endless march of hopelessness and despair. This sets the stage for Korach's rebellion. So long as the people felt that they were progressing towards their goal, nobody dared voice any dissent towards Moses' leadership. However, once the people were informed that they would die in the desert, dissent began to spread. The people are unwilling to accept their failure and to pay the consequences. They begin to fault Moses for their own failures and demand a change in leadership. Moses' leadership went uncontested as long as it brought positive results. However, once the situation became difficult, Moses' leadership is challenged.


            This supports the Ramban's earlier claim that the followers of Korach were not composed of any specific interest group such as Levites or firstborns. Rather, his followers included people from all segments of the nation who were unwilling to accept the tragic outcome of the people's sins and blamed Moses and Aaron for their misery.


            In truth, the different reasons given by the commentators for the rebellion of Korach and his followers are not mutually exclusive. Although all of Korach's party is mentioned together in the opening verse of our narrative, it is clear from the continuation of our narrative that the different groups forming the rebellion have different motivations. In the words of Rabbi Hirsch:


"As Moses approached Korach, and Datan and Aviram separately it appears that the rising formed itself into two groups with different aims..  Although the rising was against Moses and Aaron conjointly, still Korach had one thing in mind, and Datan and Aviram another.  Korach, the Levite, conducted himself as being really the champion of the rights of his tribe, insulted by the preference given to Aaron.  He, the claimed representative of equal rights for all, quite liked the privileges which he and his tribe were accorded.  Instead of stripping himself of them, which would be consistent with his charge, he was not satisfied with them, and, under the cloak of equal rights of all, sought for the dignity of the priesthood to satisfy his ambition.  Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, seemed not to have cared much for the priestly office or priestly dignity.    Only the two hundred and fifty men and Korach and Aaron are expressly mentioned there.  But it seems to have been the political position of Moses to which they objected, and they probably only joined Korach in the supposition that once the belief in Moses' mission coming from God was undermined, his position in the nation could have altogether been diminished."


            Datan and Aviram's reason for rebelling differs from that of Korach. This is why Moses relates to them separately speaking first to Korach and then to Datan and Aviram separately. Korach sought more power and dignity. He wished to become High Priest. By contrast, Datan and Aviram had no personal incentive other than undermining Moses' leadership. They not only reject Moses, but also the whole mission and purpose of the exodus from Egypt. This is highlighted by the language they use in describing Egypt: "Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness that you would also lord over us?" (16:13). Egypt, and not Israel, is the land of milk and honey. The language used by God to describe the promised land is now utilized to describe the land from which God took them out. Egypt is the ultimate ideal!


            This difference in motivation between Datan and Aviram and the rest of Korach's followers is not only attested to by Moses' separate appeal to them, but also by their ultimate demise.


"Now Datan and Aviram had come out and they stood at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, their children, and their little ones. Scarcely had he [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households" (16:27, 31,32)..


            Datan and Aviram were swallowed up by the ground. However, the two hundred and fifty followers of Korach suffered a different fate: "And a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men..." (16:35).


            The rest of Korach's party was consumed by fire. [As for Korach, it is unclear whether he was swallowed by the ground or burned by the fire. See Ibn Ezra on 16:35]. The existence of two separate punishments point to different sins and motives for rebelling. Datan and Aviram wished to topple Moses' leadership but were not interested in acquiring power for themselves. They rejected the whole mission of becoming the nation of God and wished to return to Egypt. They wished to distance themselves from God and were subsequently swallowed up by the earth. After rejecting God, Datan and Aviram lost their right to inhabit the world which God created. The motive of the rest of Korach's party was to acquire more honor and power. They wished to become priests and to be the ones to serve God in the Temple. In contrast to Datan and Aviram, the other followers of Korach wished to be closer to God in spite of the fact that God did not select them for this function. They suffered the consequence of coming to close to God and were burned by a divine fire. The common denominator of all of Korach's followers is that they went against the will God. Datan and Aviram wished to break away from the covenant with God and revert to the lowly lifestyle of Egypt. They stooped so low that they were swallowed by the ground beneath them. The rest of Korach's party wished to acquire more prominent roles in the sanctuary even though they were not worthy of this. They aimed for the heavens and were consumed by a heavenly fire.