Materialism and Spirituality in the Congregation of Korach

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


Translated by  Kaeren Fish
In memory of
Alice Stone, Aida Bat Avraham, z"l & Fred Stone, Yaakov Ben Yitzhak, z"l
whose yarzeits are 2 Tammuz and 25 Tammuz,
beloved parents and grandparents
Ellen and Stanley Stone and their children


Based on the teachings of Chazal, the Netziv (Ha’amek Davar, Bamidbar 16:1) notes the distinction between the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense and the others who attached themselves to Korach, Datan and Aviram:


“Therefore it must be understood that the 250 men were truly great people in every respect, including in their fear of God.  Their exclusion from the priesthood – which brings one to closeness and love of God – was like a fire burning within them, not because they desired power and apparent honor, but rather because they desired to sanctify themselves and to achieve a [high] level by conducting the sacrificial service… This was not so of Datan and Aviram, who were far removed from this lofty desire and were by nature disputatious and hated Moshe even in Egypt…”


The Netziv’s analysis is most convincing in light of the verses: after all, two separate arguments are presented, with different claims by different groups of people. Likewise, Moshe responds differently to each of the two groups. He is prepared to enter a discussion with the first group and to offer them the opportunity to test their claim, out of recognition of their fundamental and genuine difference of spiritual opinion. His response to Datan and Aviram, in contrast, is to sever all contact with them and to distance the rest of the nation from them.


Datan, Aviram and their cronies, pursuers of pleasure and comfort, still maintain the approach of the “mixed multitude” at Kivrot ha-Ta’ava, the “graves of lust.” The desire for ease and comfort manifests itself in the sin of the spies, and again in our parasha when Datan and Aviram demand to receive “the inheritance with fields and vineyards” (Bamidbar 16:14). From their point of view, the sin of the spies lay in their failure to lead the people back to Egypt, which represents, for them, the “land flowing with milk and honey” (ibid. 13). Their provocative speech represents an intensification of the material appetite amongst the nation. Their references to the “inheritance of field and vineyard” and the “land flowing with milk and honey” reveal that they view these as supreme values.


It is possible that the 250 men who join Korach’s congregation and who seek to offer incense are not only rebelling against the priesthood of Aharon, out of an egalitarian vision that negates the hierarchical levels of sanctity amongst the nation, but also expressing their protest against the materialism that has become manifest in the wake of the sin of the spies. As a reaction to those demanding cucumbers and melons, fields and vineyards, a group arises that wants to turn its back on the material world and to involve itself in Divine service. It is no coincidence that their confrontation with Moshe centers on the offering of incense. As opposed to the sacrificial meat and meal offerings, expressing upliftment and sanctification of the material through partaking of them, the incense symbolizes pure spirituality and the complete opposite of anything material. Its essence is not the various material ingredients of which it is composed, but rather the ephemeral cloud of smoke which it produces.


Thus, the sin of the spies and its consequences give rise to two different groups, each demanding a new direction. One seeks a fundamental change in the spiritual climate that led to the sin, while the other seeks to realize the plan of the spies. The aims and plans of these groups are diametrically opposed to each other – but they are united in their opposition to Moshe and Aharon, and this common denominator prompts them to support the rebellion of Korach. Clearly, had the rebellion succeeded, the head-on collision between these two groups would have been inevitable when it came to setting a new path for the nation.


Datan and Aviram are disappointed that there is no move back to Egypt, and their reaction is to denounce Moshe. Moshe does not deign to enter into any sort of dialogue with these wicked men. He severs contact with them and asks God to destroy them and to bring them down to Sheol.


The 250 men, for their part, view Moshe and his spiritual policy as the reason for the poor spiritual state of the nation. Not only do they refuse to accept the Torah’s principles concerning sanctification of the profane; they regard these as the cause of the far-reaching results that have come to pass. In their view, materialism and hedonism are unintended consequences of the spiritual regimen that Moshe is imposing around the Mishkan and the sacrifices. If the most spiritual people among the nation are immersed in such material matters as animal sacrifices, then the multitude will undoubtedly sink to vulgar materialism.


They hold Moshe responsible for the hedonism that is spreading amongst the nation for an additional reason as well: the selection of the Leviim, as recorded in chapter 8, which preceded the litany of sins beginning in chapter 11. In the view of the 250 men, the sins of the generation of the wilderness stem from the fact that the Divine service has been entrusted entirely to the tribe of Levi. As they see it, it is the sense of estrangement that has been created between the nation and God that is the root of all of these sins. In other words, their argument with Moshe includes a metaphysical component, but also a challenge to Moshe’s leadership. At the same time, since they are motivated by a desire for sanctity, although it is expressed through the negative channel of rebellion, Moshe expresses no anger or frustration towards them, but rather addresses their argument directly.


The group of 250 that offers incense, aspiring to greater spirituality and to ridding the holy of all that is profane, are punished with fire – which consumes the body and leaves it with no material presence. Datan and Aviram, who pursue the material and aspire to rid the profane of all that is holy, are swallowed by the physical earth and become part of its dust, together with the belongings that are so important to them.


The unit on the gifts to the kohanim, which follows the episode of Korach, comes as a response to both groups. On the one hand, this unit emphasizes the sanctity of the priesthood and its unique status in the Sanctuary: “You and your sons with you shall maintain your priesthood in all matters pertaining to the altar, and that which is inside of the veil, and you shall serve; I grant you your priesthood as a gift service, and the stranger who approaches shall be put to death” (18:7). This answers the claim of the 250 incense-offerers, who sought to deny the special status of the kohanim. On the other hand, the principle of the priestly gifts is directed towards Datan and Aviram. It establishes that a person must show honor to God with the first of his produce, guarding himself against immersion in self-centered and hedonistic materialism and lust.


Moreover, the gifts to the priests express the principle of sanctifying the profane and serving God through material acts such as eating, drinking and offering meat upon the altar. The burning fire and the consumption of meat that are involved in the sacrifices do not contradict one another; rather, they are complementary. The holy and the profane proceed together in the service of God, and they should not be separated.