Why Then Do You Raise Yourselves Up Above the Congregation of the Lord?

  • Rav Shimon Klein

The Arguments of Korach and His Company


Now Korach the son of Yitzhar the son of Kehat the son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, of the sons of Reuven, took [men]. And they rose up before Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown. And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, “You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?” (Bamidbar 16:1-3)


            These lines constitute the opening shots of a controversy that is considered the archetypal controversy in Israel. What was Korach's argument? What were Datan and Aviram's claims? A long list of serious people were involved in the affair, including "princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown," and in the end, the entire congregation followed in their footsteps.


We shall begin with an attentive reading of the text, proceeding step by step. "And Korach took" – Taking involves a transfer from one domain to another. Korach took people from their places and harnessed them for his purposes. The fact that Korach's taking is not associated with a particular object signifies an accumulation of power, assumption of the reins and leading the way.


"Korach the son of Yitzhar the son of Kehat the son of Levi" – Tracing back Korach's lineage four generations indicates an identity that is attached to its roots in earlier generations. Tracing it back to the patriarch of the tribe, Levi, teaches that tribal identity is relevant to the issue. "And Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, of the sons of Reuven" – In the outer circle stand Datan and Aviram, who are also associated with their tribe.


"And they rose up before Moshe" - Rising up implies standing without fear or self-effacement. The next stage will speak of gathering, retroactively indicating that the earlier rising up was mental, not physical.


"With certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown" - These people are first described as "certain of the children of Israel," suggesting that they enjoy the status of representatives. Mention is then made of their number, and finally we hear of their social affiliations and functions. Mentioning their number first indicates the importance of their mass, relative to the designation "men of renown," which appears last. "And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon" – This is the third verb describing their conduct. "And he took" relates to Korach as instigator; "And they rose up" includes Datan and Aviram, who stood up along with Korach; "And they gathered" includes the two hundred and fifty people who joined them in the third stage. Now the text moves on to describe their claims:


"And they said to them, ‘You take too much upon you’" – You have assumed too much power. "Seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?" - The entire congregation enjoys the high status of being holy; why then do you take so much for yourselves, and tower over the community? Korach and his community do not dispute the need for selected people - priests and leaders. Their claim relates to the abundance of powers concentrated in the hands of Moshe and Aharon. This claim is a spiritual one, and in its broad sense, it can appear in different forms.


Four Authorities


Four authorities uphold public life in Israel: the judge, the king (leader), the priest, and the prophet. These four authorities will later mature and develop into four public systems. They are discussed in four separate passages in Scripture,[1] and nothing in those passages indicates that these authorities are supposed to be assigned to one person. A significant distinction exists between one authority and the next: the place where the holder of each of these offices sits is different,[2] the literary structure of the passage defining their role is different,[3] and most importantly, the essence of the role they each play and the skills that they each require are different. The judicial system is sufficiently important to constitute a separate authority, as are the monarchy, the priesthood, and prophecy. Mixing them together is likely to impair the needed professionalism, and it is also liable to create situations of conflicts of interests.[4]


And here – Moshe assumes three of these positions of authority,[5] and the fourth is assumed by his brother Aharon.[6] This seems to underlie the claims sounded against them: "You take too much upon you," claims Korach. Too many powers are concentrated in your hands. "Seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them" – Here he focuses on the holy, perhaps on Aharon's priesthood. "Why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord?" – This is a general statement: Why has one family come to dominate all public authority? Should not a broader sector of the people participate in the leadership?


Moshe's Response


"And when Moshe heard it, he fell on his face" – Moshe hears, and he responds by falling on his face. What lies behind this fall? It seems to invite us into an inner place in his world. Moshe hears questions to which he has no simple answers. A whole verse describes his fall, testifying to its significance.


In the next stage, Moshe regains his bearings and offers a response. While Korach's argument is a spiritual one, it can have different expressions. Moshe chooses to relate to the issue of the priesthood, inviting Korach and his company to appear with censers and incense for service that essentially belongs to the priests, to test who among them God will choose.[7]


Another expression of the spiritual principle raised against Moshe and Aharon is found in the position of Datan and Aviram. As opposed to Korach, who spoke about the priesthood, these two speak about leadership: "We will not come up," they say, refusing to accept Moshe's authority. "Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, and do you also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up" (14-15). The land of Egypt is a "land flowing with milk and honey" in the eyes of those destined to die in the wilderness. They point to the failure of leadership at the time of the sin of the spies, and they ascribe responsibility to the leaders – Moshe and Aharon. What they say can be understood as another step in their basic argument: "You take too much upon you" and "why then do you raise yourselves up above the congregation." You have taken too much upon yourselves, and furthermore, you have failed. Faithful to their position, Datan and Aviram do not come with their censers to the Tent of Meeting, but rather remain in the camp, the place of the people, about whose leadership they are concerned.[8]


A fitting expression of this position is found in the Midrash:


Korach went about all that night, leading Israel astray and saying to them: “Do you think that I wish to assume greatness for myself? I want greatness to return to all of us, for Moshe took the kingdom for himself and the priesthood he gave to his brother.” He went about enticing each tribe in a manner appropriate for each one, until they joined him… (Bamidbar Rabba 18)


Korach is described as one who seeks to restore greatness to the people. He says: "I want greatness to return to all of us," speaking in first person, including himself among the rest of his people. The issue is the priesthood and the monarchy, the mandate over which should be returned to the nation.


Moshe's Response


What is the answer to the question raised by Korach and his followers? Why do Moshe and Aharon play such a large role? First, it should be noted that the Torah describes Moshe as exceedingly humble: "Now the man Moshe was very meek, more so than all the men that were upon the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 12:3). Nowhere is he depicted as one who seeks a position of authority; on the contrary, time after time he is described as fleeing from it.[9] Moreover, when Eldad and Medad prophesy in the camp, without Moshe's inspiration, his disciple Yehoshua panics. Moshe, on the other hand, reacts by saying, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets." We see that he encourages the growth of spiritual forces beyond the boundaries of his own spiritual world.[10]


Why, then, did God appoint Moshe to serve in all the public systems? We have already expanded upon this in our study of the book of Shemot (Parashat Tetzaveh), pointing to the historic process at the beginning of which Moshe is judge, king (leader), priest, and prophet. At the end of the seven days of milu'im, he parts from the priesthood and hands it over to Aharon, and later there is a continuation of the process of "sawing off," whereby little by little, the various authorities become separated from each other.[11] At the starting point, they are all in the hands of Moshe, the man who is so identified with the idea of the "holy," and their affiliation with him leaves his stamp upon them. Furthermore, these are four systems, and great tension is liable to exist between them, to the point that one might think that it is not really possible to bridge the gaps between them. But Moshe comes and builds a single foundation for all of them, a single womb, as it were, in which they all spend their gestation period, in which they are established as four authorities, which in the deep sense tell a single story – the story of the holy in this world.


Korach presents a genuine argument, a world view the essence of which involves expanding the boundaries of the holy as well as those of the leadership. Power was given to the congregation when he gathered the people against Moshe. Many good people went along with him. At the same time, Korach was a man whose time had not yet come. The people were still at the beginning of their journey, one year after the exodus from Egypt. Their system of ideas was not yet developed, and the holy was still not firmly rooted in their world. Korach was not sensitive to any of this. It is precisely because of the truth embedded in his argument that he allowed himself to cross so many red lines, to shatter values, to overthrow the leadership, and to establish the model for "controversy that is not for the sake of heaven."


Korach's claims were shelved - but they did not disappear from the world. His words, "all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them," continue to echo, and they await the time that the world will be ripe to fully recognize God, when "they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them" (Yirmeyahu 31:33).


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The four passages are found one after the other in the book of Devarim: Judge: "If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between plague and plague, matters of controversy within your gates, then shall you arise, and go up to the place which the Lord your God shall choose; and you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days and inquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment" (Devarim 17:8-13); King: "When you have come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell in it, and shall say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are about me;’ then you may appoint a king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose. One from among your brothers shall you set as king over you; you may not set a stranger over you, who is not your brother" (ibid. vv. 14-20); Priest: "The priests the Levites, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no part or inheritance with Israel. The offerings of the Lord made by fire, and His dues shall they eat. Therefore shall they have no inheritance among their brothers; the Lord is their inheritance, as He has said to them. And this shall be the priest's allotment from the people" (Devarim 18:1-5); Prophet: "The Lord your God will raise up to you a prophet from the midst of you, of your brothers, like me; to him you shall hearken" (ibid. vv. 9:22).

Alongside these, there are also the Levites, who are mentioned over and over again in the book of Bamidbar, but are nevertheless not included in this list. The role of the Levites is always in the wake of the rejection of the firstborns, and they serve as the representatives of the people (Bamidbar 8:16-19). Their oft-repeated mention in the book of Bamidbar is connected to the fact that like this book, they tell the story of the people. The failure to mention them among the four authorities in the book of Devarim is based on the fact that they do not constitute a separate authority. Our parasha describes the two sides of the Levites: "And I, behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the children of Israel; to you [i.e., to the priests] they are given as a gift for the Lord, to do the service of the Tent of Meeting" (Bamidbar 18:6).

[2] The judge and the priest are associated with "the place which the Lord shall choose," whereas the king and the prophet are not affiliated with any particular place.

[3] An illustration of the differences: In the introduction to the passage dealing with justice, it says: "Judges and officers shall you make you in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the peopple with righteous judgment" (Devarim 15:18). In other words, there is a command to appoint judges. Regarding the king, we find a description of a historic process, which includes acquiescing to the request of the people; concerning the priest, there is no appointment, because the priests have a permament appointment. As for the prophet, God establishes him as prophet, with no duty or obligation incumbent on the people.

[4] An example of the corruption that is possible when the king gains decisive influence over what takes place in the Temple: "And Amatzya said to Amos, ‘O you seer, go, flee away into the land of Yehuda, and there eat bread, and prophesy there; but do not prophesy again any more at Bet-El, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a royal house’" (Amos 7:12-13). Amatzya banishes the prophet Amos from Bet-El, telling him that it is not a place for prophecy, owing to the fact that the Temple in Bet-El is subject to the influence and control of the king – "for it is the king's sanctuary."

[5] Moshe leads the people (like a king); he serves as judge ("And it came to pass on the morrow, that Mosehe sat to judge the people; and the people stood by Moshe from the morning to the evening" [Shemot 18:13]), and after the appointment of the officers, he stands at the head of the judicial system; he is also a prophet (starting at the burning bush and until he dies).

[6] "And take you to you Aharon your brother, and his sons with him, from among the chidlren of Israel that he may minster to Me in the priest's office, Aharon, Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar, the sons of Aharon" (Shemot 28:1).

[7] In his response, Moshe addresses the issue of the priesthood, rather than his own leadership. He opens with the priesthood perhaps because Korach opened with the words, "seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them." Alternatively, perhaps he is capable of leading to a clean clarification regarding Aharon, but not regarding himself. He may have thought that resolving the issue regarding the priesthood would be beneficial for the other areas as well, and it is possible that it was his intention to open with the priesthood and afterwards continue with the other areas.

[8] According to the Ibn Ezra (Bamidbar 16:1), Korach's claim focuses on the issue of the replacement of the firstborns with the tribe of Levi. According to what we have said, this is another possible expression of the spiritual principle according to which "all the congregation are holy." 

[9] See Shemot, chapters 3 and 4, where Moshe repeatedly tries to avoid accepting the mission that God had designated for him. 

[10] "And there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad, and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of those that were written, but went not out to the tent, and they prophesied in the camp. And there ran a young man and told Moshe, and said, ‘Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp.’ And Yehoshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moshe from his youth, answered and said, ‘My Lord Moshe, restrain them.’ And Moshe said to him, ‘Do you envy for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them’" (Bamidbar 11:26-29). As opposed to Yehoshua, who panics when prophecy goes beyond the bounds of his master's prophecy, Moshe sees that as a desirable result.

[11] This is a long-term process. It was recognized already in the days of Moshe that the leader should not be a priest, and therefore from the outset Aharon was consecrated for the sacrificial service. After the prophet Shemuel, prophecy was separated from the monarchy, and from then on alongside the king stood a prophet. The separation of the judicial system from the the royal court and turning them into two authorities is not described in the Bible (in the Bible the king is also a judge), but it find expression in the Oral Law with the co-existence of two systems, the Torah's laws and the king's laws.