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Korach and his Following

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



In loving memory of Ephraim (Arpad) ben Yeshaya and Rachel Kaufman z"l, in honor of his yahrzeit 26 Sivan. Dedicated by his son.



Korach and His Following

by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Translated by David Silverberg



Korach's rebellion marks the end of the chapter of Benei Yisrael's sojourn in the wilderness that we have discussed over these last several weeks. At first glance, no connection seems to exist between Korach's personal-ideological struggle against Moshe and the sin of the scouts. Korach wages a battle that flows from jealousy, desire and honor, which, our Sages tell us, "remove a man from the world," while the nation despairs from the possibility of conquering the land. However, the Ramban (Bemidbar 16:1), in rejecting the Ibn Ezra's claim that Korach's revolt preceded the sin of the spies, addresses the juxtaposition between the two accounts and notes the connection between them:


"Korach was angered by the appointment of Elitzafan as leader [over the Levite family of Kehat] as our Sages say, and he envied Aharon, too, as it says, '… and you seek priesthood, as well.' Datan and Aviram were attracted to him, but not [in protest] over the privileges of the firstborn, for it was Yaakov their patriarch who removed it from Reuven and granted it to Yosef. Rather, they, too, explicitly state their claim: 'to kill us in the wilderness'; 'You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.' Benei Yisrael, during their stay in the wilderness of Sinai, experienced no harm; even in the incident of the calf, which constituted a grave and well-known sin, the casualties were few. They were spared through the prayer of Moshe who pleaded on their behalf for forty days and forty nights. They thus loved him as they loved themselves and obeyed him, and if someone had rebelled against Moshe at that time the nation would have stoned him. Korach therefore tolerated Aharon's stature and the firstborn tolerated the stature of the Levi'im, as well as everything Moshe did. But when they arrived in the wilderness of Paran, and they were burned by the fire of Tav'eira and many people perished in Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, and when they sinned in the incident of the scouts Moshe did not pray for them and the decree was not annulled, and the leaders of all the tribes died in a plague before God, and it was decreed that the entire nation would perish in the wilderness and die there, then the nation's soul was embittered. They felt in their hearts that mishaps would result from Moshe's orders. Korach thus found an opportunity to oppose Moshe's actions, figuring that now the nation would listen to him. This is the meaning of, "to kill us in the wilderness.' They said, look, you have brought us to this place and have not fulfilled your promise to give us a land flowing with milk and honey, for you have not given us land at all. We are rather going to die in the wilderness and be destroyed there, for even our children will never leave the wilderness, and your promise will be annulled with regard to the children just as it was with regard to us. This is the reason why their complaint occurs at this point, immediately following the decree of the scouts."


Although no topical connection exists, according to the Ramban, between the two complaints (of Korach and the scouts), the dissatisfaction with Moshe's public position and the despair that had descended upon the people in the wake of the decree, provide Korach with the moment he had been waiting for. On many occasions I heard my grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, laud this approach of the Ramban.


Nevertheless, it may very well be that we should view even the components of Korach's revolt in light of what has been unfolding more generally within the nation. To support this claim, we must assess Korach's following and the complaints they pose. Already the Netziv, based on Chazal, noted that we must distinguish between the two hundred and fifty men who offered the incense, and the rest of Korach's following, Datan and Aviram:


"We must realize and understand, from the entire discussion in the parasha, from the progression of the dispute and the punishment that befalls them, that Korach, Datan and Aviram, and the two hundred and fifty men were not equal, neither in terms of their merit nor regarding the intent behind their struggle. For we see that only Korach and the two hundred and fifty men, not Datan and Aviram, participated in the taking of the incense-pans. Also, the Almighty dealt with the two hundred and fifty men honorably, as we will explain, but not with Korach, Datan and Aviram. We must therefore understand that the two hundred and fifty men were actually spiritual giants of Israel in every detail, even in fear of God, and the inaccessibility of the priesthood, which brings closeness and love of God, was like a burning fire inside them. Their intentions were not for power or imaginary honor, but rather to become sanctified and achieve this level through the avoda [sacrificial rituals]. They also knew that God truly spoke in Moshe's mouth, and that one may not suspect it, Heaven forbid. They rather questioned in their hearts the will of God, and they gave over their lives to die for the love of God, for love is as powerful as death… Since they did, after all, intend for the sake of God, they were therefore punished by being burnt by the fire that came from the innermost sanctum, which involves honor, as we will explain. Not so with regard to Datan and Aviram. They were far from this sublime yearning, and were rather by nature quarrelsome people who despised Moshe already in Egypt… They were therefore punished by being devoured by the ground, like animals." (He'amek Davar, Bemidbar 16:1)


Whereas the former group - despite having rebelled against the greatest of all prophets and the kohen selected by the Almighty Himself - act upon sincere, altruistic motives, and their rebellion originated from a desire for sanctity and purity, the latter act with insincere motives, out of envy and desire for altercation.


Textually, the Netziv's analysis, claiming that two different groups rose against Moshe, is very convincing. The verses present before us two different arguments, each posed by different people in different locations and advancing different claims, like two episodes occurring in succession. Even Moshe's responses to the two groups differ drastically from one another. Whereas with the first group he is prepared to negotiate and discuss their argument, acknowledging their desire for sanctity and the essentially spiritual nature of their argument, his exclusive reaction to Datan and Aviram's defiance is one of total dissociation and distancing the nation from them.

We should perhaps assess the positions of these two factions in light of the spiritual processes described throughout Sefer Bemidbar. The adherents of Datan and Aviram, who pursue physical comfort and enjoyment, continue to promote the approach of the "asafsuf" ("riffraff") of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava (Bemidbar 11:4) that had already spread through the nation and found its expression with the sin of the scouts. Datan and Aviram's proclamation, "You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of fields and vineyards," constitutes a direct continuation of the approach advanced by those who "felt a gluttonous craving" at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, and the spies. The lesson learned by Datan and Aviram and their colleagues from the incident of the scouts is not that they should alter their course in light of the failure, but rather make yet another attempt to realize the dream of, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt" (see 14:4). From their standpoint, the failure of the meraglim lay in the nation's failure tostick to its avowed goal treturn to Egypt. They therefore intensify their efforts in this endeavor.


Moreover, the contemptuous vitriol that Datan and Aviram hurl at Moshe signify a new, extreme level in the process of their intensifying hedonism that began at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava. We have progressed from demands or requests resulting from a momentary desire or fear of what lay ahead, to an explicit call for the establishment of "a possession of fields and vineyards" as the national ambition and dream. From now on, according to Datan and Aviram, neither the capture of their ancestral homeland from the Emorites nor the endowment of the Torah to Am Yisrael will serve as the yardstick to determine Moshe's success or failure in leading the people, but rather his providing them with private homes. Whether or not those involved in the Kivrot Ha-ta'ava incident or the spies shared these sentiments, they did not dare express them explicitly; only in the wake of the debacle of the scouts and the undermining of Moshe's stature, do Datan and Aviram dare to unabashedly proclaim this ideology of pure materialism and hedonism.


Incense and Abstinence


In light of what we have seen until now, it stands to reason that the two hundred and fifty men who join Korach and wish to offer incense do not rebel against the priesthood merely out of a belief in equality that denies any gradation of sanctity within the nation. Rather, they also protest the material world that surfaced in the nation during the incidents of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava and the scouts. To oppose the world of those who demanded "cucumbers and melons" (11:5), initiated a return to Egypt and longed for fields and vineyards, a reactionary group formed that turned its back on the material world and sought to occupy themselves solely in the service of God. This approach found expression in the desire to offer incense.


For good reason, their struggle against Moshe focuses on the ketoret, the incense, rather than on other rituals in the Mishkan. Moshe's suggestion that they offer incense came in response to their claims expressing their desire to reestablish a life founded on spirituality, that overcomes and turns its back on the mundane. This faction is repulsed by the obsessive materialism of the nation, triggering a desire for a life sealed with the stamp of abstract spirituality that propels them beyond the material world. This decision leads to their desire to serve God through the offering of ketoret. A certain tension exists between the standard offerings of animals and grain, and the incense. The sacrifices do not attempt to destroy the physical, but rather to elevate it, to offer it to God. In this system, blood and limbs bear significance, insofar as they are offered on the altar with the meat eaten by the kohanim: "They shall eat them for those for whom expiation is made - this teaches that the kohanim eat and the owners [who bring the sacrifice] earn atonement" (Yevamot 40a). The burning of sacrifices on the altar is viewed as the altar's "consumption" of the offerings: "The consumption by the altar is considered 'akhila' [eating]; what is the reason? Because the verse states, 'If any of the flesh of his sacrifice of well-being is eaten' ['im hei'akhol yei'akhel' - a double expression in reference to the meat's consumption] - the verse speaks of two forms of consumption: consumption by man, and consumption by the altar" (Chulin 81a). Thus, we do not view the burning of the sacrifice's limbs on the altar as the destruction or negation of the physical, but rather a symbolic act of consumption, or maintaining its status as physical matter, matter that changes forms within the physical world, through the process of consumption and digestion.


The ketoret, by contrast, symbolizes spirituality and the escape from the physical. Its essence is embodied in the cloud it produces, expressing the transcendent spirit as it appears on earth, as the verse states, "for I will appear over the ark-covering in a cloud" (Vayikra 16:2). Unlike the sacrifices, the ingredients used in the manufacture of the ketoret - meaning, its physical components - bear no intrinsic significance; they serve only to produce the cloud of the ketoret - symbolizing the spirit.[1] There is no less physical ritual in the Temple, or any ritual more identified with the abstractness of the Shekhina, than the ketoret. The two hundred and fifty seekers of sanctity therefore longed to offer specifically the ketoret.


The picture that arises from the text, then, is the formation of two groups demanding change in the aftermath of the sin of the scouts. One calls for a fundamental change in the spiritual climate that gave rise to the sin of the meraglim, while the other seeks to bring the meraglim's plan into fruition. Though their aims and plans differ ever so drastically from one another, they both unite in their opposition to Moshe and Aharon; this common denominator brings them together in support of Korach's rebellion.


Datan and Aviram are disappointed that the decree of death in the wilderness prevented the possibility of returning to Egypt; they rebel against Moshe, the leader who prophesies in the Name of the Almighty. Moshe responds to them just as he does whenever he confronts a situation of pursuit of material comfort: he conducts no negotiations with the wicked men, but rather severs all ties with them and does not hesitate to speak harshly with them. Moreover, he even requests that the Almighty destroy them and bury them beneath the ground.


The two hundred and fifty men, by contrast, blame Moshe and his policy for the spiritual state of the nation prior to the debacle of the scouts, and they demand a change. They do not view the current situation as a result of fatigue from spiritual tension, but rather attribute it to the designation of the Levi'im and the construction of the Mishkan that took place a short while earlier. On the one hand, they oppose the general spiritual world presented at length towards the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar, that finds its expression in the Mishkan. This world of sanctifying the physical and its assimilation into the world of sanctity, of taking the body and raising its stature by dedicating it to God and sacrificing it upon the altar, creating a "pleasant fragrance to God" through an animal - they do not accept this. They cannot view the altar and its "bread" as sources of spirituality, but rather as crude matter with no possible affiliation with the world of the spirit.


However, their dispute with Moshe does not end there. Not only do they engage in a spiritual debate and refuse to accept the Torah's position as to the sanctity of the material world, they also attribute to this position drastic consequences regarding recent events. The widespread hedonism and obsession with the physical that surfaced at Kivrot Ha-ta'ava and in the incident of the spies are not unrelated, they claim, to the spiritual world that Moshe leads around the Mishkan and sacrificial order. If even the highest echelon among the people is entrenched in the material world, albeit for the sake of Heaven, the two hundred and fifty men figure, certainly this will lead the lower elements to indulge in profane hedonism. The difference between the two lies merely in the fact that the former offer the meat to God, whereas the latter demand it for their bellies; both, however, place a heavy emphasis on the physical. In this faction's view, the exalted world of sanctifying the physical naturally leads to the attribution of paramount importance to the physical. They therefore join Datan and Aviram in protesting Moshe's leadership. Both factions reject the blend of materialism and sanctity, and the dialectic created by elevating the physical to a level of sanctity and transforming an act of eating from a biological-animalistic act to an experience of religious joy. One group tries to take the sanctity out of the physical while the other seeks to remove the physical component from sanctity. In this manner they join forces in opposing Moshe and his Torah, which combine the physical and the sp. (Obviously, were they to have succeeded in their planand the opposition to Moshe would have worked, an unavoidable confrontation would have then erupted between the different approaches, which stand at opposite poles from one another.)


Beyond this, they hold Moshe accountable for the nation's hedonism and loss of purpose for an additional reason: the appointment of the Levi'im. From their perspective, it is not the incident in chapter 10 - "They journeyed from the mountain of the Lord" - that led to the fateful events of chapters 11-13, but rather that which occurred in chapter 8 - the consecration of the Levi'im. The textual juxtaposition between the nation's sins and that which is recorded towards the beginning of the sefer is due not only to their very presence at the mountain of God and their fear of the great fire that burns atop the mountain. Rather, this is attributed to the ritual service's having been reserved for the tribe of Levi. This faction believe that the nation's sins are rooted not in spiritual weariness, but rather a sense of distance between them and the Almighty in the wake of the Levi'im's designation.


Thus, even from the perspective of the two hundred and fifty men, this dispute involves more than a purely metaphysical question - with roots in the Levi'im's appointment - with respect to the nature of sanctity. They rather protest Moshe's leadership in light of what occurred with the incident of the meraglim. Nevertheless, as they are driven not by a corrupted soul but rather by a yearning for holiness, albeit gravely misdirected, Moshe does not express towards them the anger and frustration that typify his responses in Sefer Bemidbar. Instead, he tries dealing with them by directly addressing their issue. For the first time since the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, Moshe confronts a group concerned for the spiritual well-being of the nation and a life of sanctity and purity. They have no interest in pursuing "the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic," which cast a person alive into the grave of desire. Moshe therefore engages them and tries to persuade them, while with Datan and Aviram he seeks no negotiation whatsoever and distances himself from them. The gap that separates his world, which seeks a life of sanctity and purity, from their material world, can never be bridged.


Unlike Eldad and Meidad, however, who raise objections concerning the leadership's policy without denying Moshe's authority over the nation, the two hundred and fifty men rebel against Moshe, his leadership and his prophecy.


Those who offered the incense, who strive for more spirituality and less physicality, are punished with fire, which destroys the body and turns it into oblivion - similar to the ketoret that they sinfully offered. By contrast, Datan, Aviram and their following, who pursued materialism, were devoured by the physical earth and became part of the dust of the ground - together with the possessions which they obsessively pursued.


The story of Korach's revolt is followed by a detailed outline of the "matenot kehuna," the "gifts" that Benei Yisrael must give the kohanim. This section constitutes a response to the two factions that participated in the revolt. On the one hand, matenot kehuna emphasize the sanctity of the priesthood and its singular status in the Temple, as well as the need to guard the Temple against the intrusion of foreigners: "You and your sons shall guard your priesthood in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain. I make your priesthood a service of dedication; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death" (18:7). This element responds to the position advanced by the two hundred and fifty men who rejected the institution of the kehuna. On the other hand, the concept of the matenot is also directed towards the faction headed by Datan and Aviram, as it establishes that a person must honor the Almighty by donating to Him the first of his assets and produce. The choicest grain is reserved not for the individual's culinary delight, but rather for the expression of thanksgiving and debt of gratitude to God: "All the best of the new oil, wine and grain - the choice parts that they present to the Lord - I give to you [the kohanim]" (ibid., 12).


Additionally, the matenot kehuna come to repeat and emphasize the principle of sanctifying the material world and serving God through physical acts such as eating, drinking and sacrificing on the altar. The kohanim eat "from the most holy sacrifices" (verse 9) and the one bringing the offering thereby earns atonement. The fire that burns and the consumption of sacrificial meat do not contradict one another, but rather complement one another. The kohanim earn their food from "God's table," they partake of the teruma with sanctity and purity as an outright act of avodat Hashem.[2]


We may thus view the section of matenot kehuna, which provides a guideline and direction with regard to the Torah's approach towards man's physical success, as a response and conclusion to not only the story of Korach and his following, but to the much broader plot woven through the entire middle section of Sefer Bemidbar - the plot that began with the frantic flight from the mountain of God and the incident of Kivrot Ha-ta'ava, and concludes with the charges of Korach and his following against Moshe, the plot the deals entirely with the difficult struggle that emerged with the fall of the nation's spiritual tension and their pursuit of physical indulgence.


[1] This distinction between the sacrificial limbs placed on the altar and the ingredients of the ketoret can be detected in between the lines of several sugyot in the Talmud, and emerges clearly from the Gemara in Menachot 26b. The Gemara there establishes that the limbs become "the bread of the altar" upon their ascent onto it, whereas the components of the ketoret do not become the "bread" of the incense altar. An extreme expression of this concept is the famous, controversial position of the Rambam that the ingredients of the ketoret included blood of non-kosher animals. See Hilkhot Kelei ha-Mikdash 1:3; 2:3.

[2] See Pesachim 72b; Sifrei (Horowitz edition), 116.





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