Is It Possible to Lead a People Without Rebellions and Without “Low” Politics?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In memory of
Rebbetzin Rebecca Singer z"l,
wife of Rabbi Joseph Singer z"l, daughter of Rabbi Chaim Heller z"l
upon her yahrzeit, 27 Sivan
by her daughter Vivian Singer
In loving memory of Ada Bat Avroham, Alice Stone z"l,
beloved mother and grandmother on the occasion of her Yahrzeit, 2 Tammuz
Ellen & Stanley Stone and their children and grandchildren,
Jake & Chaya, Micah & Addie, Zack & Yael, Allie & Isaac,
Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Cayley, Azi, Eliana & Moshe,
Adina & Emunah, Gabi & Talia
The most remarkable thing about Parashat Korach is the fact that it was included in the Torah. The Torah does not hide from the Jewish People across the generations even the most difficult stories, and even the failures and the sins. These failures are not only those of the "wicked" and the "sinners," but even those of the great prophets, prophetesses, and priests – Aharon, Miryam, and even Moshe.[1]
It is not difficult to understand the fact that in the wilderness, in the generation that was taken out of Egypt, there were serious crises, failures, and sins. There are crises and failure at all times and in all places. Moreover, it is not surprising that in the generation of the wilderness there were perhaps even more crises and failures than usual, precisely because of the wondrous and formative events that took place at that time. These events went far beyond what the people of Israel could absorb, even by the unique generation that came out of Egypt.
It is difficult to understand, however, why the Torah had to be so bold and so truthful as to require that all of the stories of these crises be recorded. One can think of far more "appropriate" issues to discuss. It would have been possible, for example, to spell out in the Written Law the labors that are forbidden on Shabbat, or alternatively to record hymns and prayers to be sung together with the sacrifices, or to teach the later generations how to maintain faith, joy, and elevated spirit even in the most difficult of situations.
It seems that had the Torah concealed the crises, we might have thought that it was written by human beings. These people might have been great and profound, but nonetheless they were humans, who wish always to raise their heads and strengthen themselves with faith, honesty, and joy. But the Torah that has come down from heaven does not make allowances for anyone, not even for Moshe. It leads us across the generations through all the crises and falls!
What can we learn from this?
First of all, that there are no perfect people and no perfect generations, and that it is impossible to lead a nation without crises, even if the leaders are the greatest prophets and priests. There is no nation without politics, no generation without bitterness and rebellions. There is no such thing as people without cravings, whether cravings for meat or cravings for idle gossip. Similarly, there are no journeys in the wilderness without complaints and revolts and coalitions of personal ambitions spiced with high-sounding words, and even beautiful ideas.
When Did the Rebellion of Korach and His Company Take Place?
R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (in his commentary to Bemidbar 16:1) argues that the rebellion broke out already in the Sinai wilderness, at the time that the firstborns were replaced by the Levites. According to Ibn Ezra, there is no logic in delaying this rebellion to the Paran wilderness.
The Ramban (ad loc.), on the other hand, argues that in the Sinai wilderness, despite the sin of the golden calf, Moshe was at his height; bitterness was set aside. But after the decree of forty more years in the wilderness, all of the dormant issues broke out. This is proven by the story of Datan and Aviram, who argued that Moshe had failed to bring them to the Land of Israel. Therefore, the rebellion against the selection of the tribe of Levi and of Aharon and his sons for the priesthood broke out at that time. Korach took the various groups of dissenters and created from them a rebellious coalition:
Now Korach… and Datan and Aviram…, the sons of Reuven… and they rose up in the face of Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown… And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. (Bemidbar 16:1-3)
            This strange coalition of the various different groups startled Moshe, who fell on his face and tried to speak to the people who were seeking greater sanctity.
A Coalition Without a Foundation of Truth
Korach's coalition was made up of opposite extremes.
Datan and Aviram detested the leadership of Moshe, who they claimed had entangled the people in the wilderness without any hope in the foreseeable future, after having taken them out of "a land flowing with milk and honey"[2] (Bemidbar 16:13-14), rather than bringing them to such a place.
The two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation of Israel rejected Aharon as High Priest. They wished to return to "ritual democracy," which had prevailed at the time of the exodus from Egypt, when every firstborn in his house and every prince in his community could serve as a priest and burn incense before God.
Korach (from the tribe of Levi!) saw himself as a more appropriate leader than the pair of brothers, Moshe and Aharon. He was the only connection between those who opposed the leadership of Moshe and those who opposed the priesthood of Aharon.[3]
This coalition had no basis of truth.
As soon as Moshe summoned Korach and his company to face Aharon in the test of the fire-pans, the rebellious coalition began to fall apart, because Datan and Aviram refused to come. They viewed the test of the fire-pans as "eye-gouging" (Bemidbar 16:14). In their opinion, this was just another trick from the school of Moshe, who knew how to perform signs and wonders, but failed to bring the people to the Promised Land.
Of course, it is easier to blame the leader for the decree of death in the wilderness than to recognize the sins of the people as the underlying cause. It was enough that Moshe sent the "scouts" and asked them the questions that were in the hearts of the people to cast the responsibility upon him. Moshe understood that his supreme obligation was to stand up against Datan and Aviram, who had rebelled against him, and to leave the battle for holiness and the priesthood in the hands of Aharon. 
Thus, two separate focal points came into being, with separate punishments. Moshe went to Datan and Aviram, while the two hundred and fifty princes went to burn incense with Aharon.
Those who burned incense with fire were consumed by the very fire that they had offered to God (Bemidbar 16:18):
And a fire came forth from the Lord and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense. (Bemidbar 16:35)[4]
This fire was just the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu "on the eighth day" (Vayikra 9:24-10:2). The fire-pans of the two hundred and fifty princes then remained as a warning sign for future generations (Bemidbar 17:1-5).
Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, who rejected the land of their forefathers, were swallowed up by the land of the wilderness in an earthquake that was like a "new thing created by God" (Bemidbar 16:30-34), and not by a sign or wonder at the hands of Moshe. Those who claimed that Moshe was a sorcerer who puts out the eyes of men essentially asked for God's intervention – and they got it! And as Moshe had requested (Bemidbar 16:28), once again the people of Israel saw with their own eyes that Moshe served as God's agent!
Korach's End
What happened to Korach himself? In the story related in our parasha, Korach seems to disappear after having assembled "all the congregation unto the door of the tent of meeting" (Bemidbar 16:19). In the company of Datan and Aviram, mention is made of "the dwelling of Korach" (Bemidbar 16:24), as well as "all the men that appertained to Korach" (Bemidbar 16:32), who were swallowed up by the ground – but Korach himself is not explicitly mentioned!
In the final census, in preparation for entering the land and dividing up the tribal territories, we find in the summary of "the children of Reuven":
And the earth opened up her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, when that company died; when the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men…. (Bemidbar 26:9-10)
Here it is implied, at least by way of allusion, that Korach was connected to both groups and to both punishments.
Indeed, Chazal say in a midrash that Korach was burned by the fire, and his body then rolled to the mouth of the earth.[5] This is reasonable, for he alone connected the two groups, which were opposites in every way.
Moreover, Korach wanted to replace both Moshe and Aharon and to serve as the leader-priest. Therefore, he was torn between the congregation that he assembled "at the door of the tent of meeting" (Bemidbar 16:19) and "the dwelling of Korach, Datan, and Aviram" (Bemidbar 16:24). While he was alive, he could not stand simultaneously in both groups and lead the two camps. This proved the correctness of Moshe's approach to distinguish between the leadership and the priesthood. As it turned out, it was right to place Aharon in the sanctuary, while Moshe led in the place where he was needed at that time. Only the corpse of Korach could be both burned and swallowed up by the ground!
Only at a time of historic twilight, after the destruction of the Mishkan of Shilo and before the beginning of the monarchy, did there emerge the prophet Shemuel. Shemuel was a descendant of one of the sons of Korach who "did not die" (Bemidbar 26:11; I Divrei Ha-Yamim 6:18-23). He was a leader-prophet, and he also offered sacrifices (at Mitzpa, like a priest who is anointed for war; see I Shemuel 7:5-12), and the tribes of Israel relied on him as their sole savior in those days.
Korach might have felt these special powers in his soul, as Chazal explain:
Seeing that Korach was clever, what led him to this nonsense? His eyes misled him. He saw a great dynasty issuing from him – Shemuel, who was the equivalent of Moshe and Aharon, as it is stated: "Moshe and Aharon among his priests, and Shemuel among them that call upon His name" (Tehillim 99:6). (Tanchuma, Korach 5)[6]
In any event, God forced Shemuel to cut short this unusual form of leadership.[7] Shemuel was to anoint Shaul as king, and later, David.
The Continuation of the Struggle Over Holiness
Datan and Aviram's political party was swallowed up by the ground and erased. But the members of the holiness political party, those who offered the incense, continued in their struggle. They even accused Moshe and Aharon: "You have killed the people of the Lord" (Bemidbar 17:6), because they had suggested the test of the fire-pans, in the course of which two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation were burned to death.
The argument advanced by Moshe and Aharon on the previous day ("Shall one man sin and will You be wroth with all the congregation?!" Bemidbar 16:22) was exposed as untrue, for many people still fought against a priesthood from one tribe. The argument that "all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them" (Bemidbar 16:3) continued to be heard and echoed.
There is, of course, an element of truth in this assertion. God's first utterance to Moshe on Mount Sinai proves this:
And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Shemot 19:6)
We learn this also from the sanctity of firstborns from the time of the exodus from Egypt. We noted elsewhere that the replacement of the firstborns with the Levites was apparently a necessary conclusion, because of the anarchy that reigned in the area of the Divine service, which reached its climax in the sin of the golden calf. But this revolution of the selection and sanctity of the tribe of Levi and the placement of the safeguarding of the Mishkan and the holy in its hands alone was not easily accepted. Bemidbar chapter 17 proves this – the struggle continued, and with it the calamities.
This time, Moshe could no longer cry out and pray, because Korach and his company were no longer around.[8] Now it became clear even to Moshe that it was not only one man who sinned. Moshe sent Aharon to stop the plague in the place where people were dying. As an extraordinary reversal of the atonement of Yom Kippur, Aharon took the fire-pan with fire and a cloud of rising incense outside, to atone for the people and stop the plague "between the dead and the living" (Bemidbar 17:13). It was Aharon who saved them, and therefore "his rod was budded" (Bemidbar 17:20-23).
Conclusions: Priesthood Without Territory
In contrast to most other priesthoods in the world, which amass vast amounts of consecrated properties,[9] the Torah's ideal in the selection of the Levites is reflected in their removal from tribal territories. The fighting tribes will inherit the land for which they fought, while the tribe of Levi will be consecrated for the Divine service. Their primary service would involve twofold safeguarding and protection: of the holy and of the people of Israel from the holy fire that was liable to burst forth.[10]
Instead of a territorial inheritance, the priests will receive portions of the holy sacrifices, teruma from the grain, grapes, and olives, first-fruits and first-born animals, devotions, and the "heave-offerings of the holy things" (Bemidbar 18:19) from the peace-offerings. 
The place and position of the priests in the sanctuary appear here to be strong, as long as there is one Mishkan (or Temple) for the entire Jewish People. But if many bamot are established, the basis of the priesthood will also be undermined, as is what happened in the days of the judges and the kings.
The status of the Levites is much more complicated. Once the journeys will come to an end and the need to dismantle and reassemble the Mishkan will be cancelled, there will arise a problem for the tribe of Levi.
This problem is reflected even in the Levites' permanent positions as guards and singers. The Levites as singers are mentioned in I Divrei Ha-Yamim 15 and elsewhere, when the ark was brought up by David to Jerusalem, but they are not mentioned in the account in II Shemuel 6, and they are not mentioned at all in the Torah.
It is fascinating to consider that the lead singer "of the children of Kehat" is Heiman, a grandson of the prophet Shemuel (I Divrei ha-Yamim 6:18-23), from "the sons of Korach," and the names of the sons of Korach are attached to a series of psalms in the book of Tehilim (42-49, 84-85, 87-88).
In my opinion, this can be seen as an historic "repair" of the sins committed by Korach and his company.
As for the actual situation of the Levites (particularly as it is described in the book of Devarim), the Levite appears as one of the poor people at the gate, whom one is obligated to help. This is because the ideal laid out in our chapter, and the "repair" (from Tehillim and Divrei Ha-Yamim), was not always fulfilled.
The solution in our chapter is "the tithe of the Levites" (what Chazal called the "first tithe"). A farmer is not doing the Levite a favor when he gives him a tithe of his crops, which does not belong to him at all. Rather, this is a deposit in the hands of the Israelite farmer on behalf of the Levite:
In return for the service which they serve, the service of the tent of meeting. (Bemidbar 18:21)
Therefore, this tithe is not holy and it may be eaten in all places.[11] This tithe is considered "as though it were the corn of the threshing-floor and as the fullness of the wine-press" (Bemidbar 18:27). This is the reason that the Levite must set aside from it "tithe of the tithe" (Bemidbar 18:26), because it is considered like the produce of the inheritance of the Levites in place of the tribal territory that they were not given.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] As we learned in Parashat Beha'alotekha.
[2] In Egypt they had fish and vegetables (as is stated in Bemidbar 11:5), but certainly not "milk and honey."
[3] This is the meaning of the expression, "And Korach took," as Rashi explains it in his second explanation – he took one group and the other group with his words.
[4] Rashbam (Vayikra 9:24; 10:2) explains that the fire that issued forth from before God to receive the offerings was the same fire that burned Nadav and Avihu, even though it says twice: "And a fire issued forth from before the Lord." The Ramban (ad loc.), on the other hand, understands that Nadav and Avihu put the incense on the fire and walked with a pillar of fire and a cloud in their hands; this joined a heavenly fire, and they were burned with the fire that they brought. See my article, "Yom ha-Shemini ve-Yom ha-Kippurim," on my website.
[5] Bemidbar Rabba 18:14; see Ibn Ezra, Bemidbar 16:35.
[6] Bemidbar Rabba 18:7; Rashi, Bemidbar 16:7.
[7] This is the principle of separation between kingship and priesthood, which Chazal learned (Yerushalmi Horayot 3:3): "Priests are not to be anointed as kings, as it is stated (Devarim 17:20-18:1): 'To the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel"; and adjacent to it: "The priests the Levites, even all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel.'"
In this context, see also the Ramban's commentary to Bereishit 49:10 regarding the sin of the Chashmonaim, who took the monarchy for themselves, and the terrible punishment that befell them. See also my book Ha-Makor Ha-Kaful – Hashra'a Ve-Samchut Be-Mishnat Ha-Rav Kook (Kibbutz ha-Meuchad and Beit Morasha, 2014), chapter 13: Kehuna U-Melukha.
[8] Compare Moshe and Aharon's prayer against Korach "at the door of the tent of meeting" (Bemidbar 16:22) to the silence "on the morrow… toward the tent of meeting" (Bemidbar 17:7-8).
[9] In the manner of the Christian churches and the Muslim Waqf, and already in ancient times, the priests in Egypt on their lands (Bereishit 47:22).
[10] As with Nadav and Avihu, and as with the two hundred and fifty princes who burned incense.
[11] In the book of Devarim (14:22-27), mention is made of "holy tithe" (what Chazal call the "second tithe"), which must be taken "to the place, which the Lord your God shall choose," and if it is too much, is redeemed and its sanctity transferred to that which will be purchased "in the place which the Lord your God shall choose." The "Levite tithe," in contrast, is not mentioned there at all. On the contrary, there is an obligation to include "the Levite in your gates" in the celebration of the "holy tithe," "because he has no portion nor inheritance with you." In the third year, all "holy tithe" is turned into "poor-man's tithe," which has no holiness and is wholly designated for "the Levite… and the stranger, and the orphan and the widow." Unfortunately, the solution of the "Levite tithe" did not always work. Even in our time, there is merely a weak remembrance of it in the tithing text; since it has the status of ordinary produce, it is not set aside and it is not given at all to the Levites.