The Unique Element of Korach’s Rebellion

Rabbi Bernie Fox

Now Korach, the son of YItzhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Levy, with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and Ohn, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuven, took men. And they rose up before Moshe, with certain men of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men – princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown. And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said unto them: You take too much upon you, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and Hashem is among them. Why do you lift yourselves above the assembly of Hashem? (Sefer BeMidbar 16:1-3)

And Moshe said unto Korach: Hear now, you sons of Levy. Is it but a small thing to you, that the G-d of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the Mishcan of Hashem, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them, and that He has brought you near, and all your brethren the sons of Levy with you? And will you seek the priesthood also? (Sefer BeMidbar 16:8-10)

1. Korach’s rebellion

Parshat Korach describes the rebellion against Moshe led by Korach and his lieutenants Datan and Aviram. The above passages describe Korach’s complaints against Moshe. Korach challenges Moshe’s role as leader of Bnai Yisrael. Korach asserts that the entire nation is sacred. Every member partakes of the sanctity conferred upon Bnai Yisrael. Therefore, the proposition that Moshe is somehow superior and entitled to impose his will upon the nation is absurd. In short, Korach proposed political anarchy.

However, this was the sole issue that Korach raised. In his response Moshe criticizes Korach for seeking the role of Kohen – priest. Apparently, Korach’s preference for anarchy not limited to the realm of the political. He also proposed religious anarchy. Every person should participate equally in the service of Hashem. All should share equal access to the Mishcan and to participation in the sacrificial service.

And he spoke unto Korach and unto all his company, saying: In the morning Hashem will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him. Him whom He may choose He will cause to come near unto Him. Do this. Take you censors, Korach, and all his company, and put fire therein, and put incense upon them before Hashem tomorrow. And it shall be that the man whom Hashem chooses, he shall be holy. You take too much upon you, sons of Levy. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:5-7)

2. Moshe’s response

Moshe suggests to Korach a contest to be conducted the next morning. Korach and his followers should prepare an offering of incense. The exact nature of this contest is not completely clear from the passages. There are a number of disputes among the commentators regarding its details. However, it seems that Moshe suggested that Korach, his followers, and Aharon each prepare incense offerings. This offering can only be presented by a Kohen. Furthermore, the people were very aware of the consequences for offering the incense in an inappropriate manner. The nation had recently mourned the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. 1 Nadav and Avihu had been consumed by a fire sent forth by Hashem in response to their unauthorized offering of incense.

According to Korach, all of the people were equal in their sanctity and all were equally entitled to participate in divine service. Therefore, all of the offerings presented by the participants should be accepted by Hashem. Presumably, the acceptance of their offerings would be demonstrated by some sign – apparently, a flame that would descend from Hashem and consume the incense. However, if only Aharon is the authentic and legitimate Kohen, then only his offering will be accepted. Of course, the other participants will place their lives at risk. When the flame descends and consumes Aharon’s offering, these pretenders may experience the fate of Nadav and Avihu. The flame that consumes Aharon’s offering may consume them.

Most of the commentators agree that Moshe wished only to motivate Korach and his followers to reconsider their criticisms. He anticipated that they would not wish to risk their lives on behalf of a proposition that they probably realized was unfounded. In other words Moshe did not actually intend to harm Korach and his followers. He suggested this contest merely in order to force the insurgents to reconsider their position.2

And Moshe was very angry, and said to Hashem: Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them. Neither have I hurt one of them. And Moshe said unto Korach: You and all of your congregation should be before Hashem – you, and they, and Aharon, to-morrow. And take every man his fire-pan, and put incense upon them, and bring before Hashem every man his fire-pan, two hundred and fifty fire-pans – you also, and Aharon, each his fire-pan. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:15-17)

3. Moshe’s anger

Next, Moshe summons Datan and Aviram. There is a difference of opinion between the commentators regarding Moshe’s purpose in summoning his adversaries. One opinion is that Moshe summoned them to appear before the Bait Din – the court. His intent was to employ the courts to resolve the issue.3 Rashi suggests that Moshe did not summon Datan and Aviram for the purpose of confronting them. Instead, he wished to make peace with them. He hoped that through a face-to-face meeting he would resolve the conflict. Again, it is clear from Moshe’s behavior that he was not interested in harming or punishing his adversaries. Instead, he wished to resolve the conflict and deescalate the tension without recourse to force and without harming his opponents.4

Datan and Aviram refused to respond to Moshe’s summons. This evokes a change in Moshe’s attitude. As the above passages explain, Moshe becomes angry with his opponents. He prays to Hashem to reject their incense offerings. Furthermore, he instructs Korach and his followers to immediately implement the test he had previously described. Moshe is no longer using the prospect of the contest to induce his opponents to reconsider their positions. He is now directing them to proceed with the contest. In other words, Moshe is demanding that the insurgents execute a test that he realizes will result in their death.

This is not the response that would be expected of Moshe. This is not the first time he has been subjected to the criticism and even abuse by the people. While still in Egypt, the people questioned Moshe’s effectiveness. At the Reed Sea, they suspected that Moshe would not be able to deliver them from the pursuing Egyptians. In the wilderness, the nation had repeatedly complained to Moshe. Sometimes the people came to Moshe with understandable demands. At other times their demands and complaints were more frivolous and unwarranted. The one constant theme in their complaints is dissatisfaction with Moshe’s leadership. Yet, on these many occasions, Moshe did not become angry with the people. Even on those occasions on which Hashem responded with anger, Moshe interceded and pleaded with Hashem to treat the people with mercy and compassion. Why in this instance did Moshe become angry and invite the destruction of his opponents?

And Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav and they said: We will not come up. 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, but you must also rule over us? Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. If you will put out the eyes of these men, we will not come up. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:12-14)

4. Datan and Aviram’s response to Moshe’s summons

In order to answer this question, Datan and Aviram’s response to Moshe’s summons must be considered and analyzed. Datan and Aviram immediately refuse to appear before Moshe. However, they then present an extensive list of charges against Moshe. They outline three basic charges. First, they criticize Moshe for taking Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt – a bountiful and resource-rich country. They reiterate that Moshe does not deserve to be leader of the people. Finally, they posit that Moshe has failed in the very mission that he had accepted upon himself. He will not bring them into the Land of Israel and he will not give Bnai Yisrael possession of the Land.

Is there a connection and relationship between these various charges or are Datan and Aviram merely creating a list of every imagined failing? Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that all of these charges express a single theme. What is this theme?

5. Moshe’s role as leader

In Moshe’s response to Datan and Aviram’s rejection of his summons, Moshe makes an interesting assertion. He declares that he has never taken a donkey from anyone. Korach and his lieutenants challenged Moshe’s authority and accused him of being a failed leader. They did not accuse him of stealing. To what accusation was Moshe responding when he declared his respect of the people’s property?

Maimonides explains that a king has the authority to levy and collect taxes from the people.5 Also, he asserts that Moshe had the authority of a king.6 Apparently, Moshe was declaring that rather than imposing his will upon the people and forcing them to submit to his authority, he had ruled very benevolently. He had the right to levy and collect taxes but he had not requisitioned from the people even a single donkey.

Now, Datan and Aviram’s charges can be better understood and their underlying theme becomes evident. A king is responsible for the welfare of the nation. He is obligated to nurture the nation’s spiritual and material wellbeing. He is the enforcer of moral standards and he leads the nation in battle.7 Datan and Aviram’s charges were not merely that Moshe was a poor leader. They assessed Moshe by the standards appropriate to a king. He took the nation out of Egypt – a rich, fertile country. He seized the authority of a king but he has not and will not provide for the nation’s material wellbeing. He will not bring them into the Land of Israel and he will not lead the nation in the campaign against the Land’s inhabitants. As a king, he has been a failure!

Still, Moshe’s response is not explained. Why was Moshe unwilling to overlook this complaint? Why did he insist on punishing his opponents?

6. The obligations to respect parents, teachers, and the king

The Torah directs us to respect various individuals. These include parents, teachers, and the King of Israel. However, there is a fundamental difference between these three obligations of respect. Maimonides explains that a teacher can excuse his students from this obligation.8 Also, a parent can forego elements of his right to the respect of his children.9 However, the king has no authority over the duty of his subjects to treat him with respect. He cannot forego this right and any attempt to do so is ineffective. He does not relieve his subjects of their obligations to treat the king with respect and reverence.

Based on this principle, Rav Soloveitchik explains Moshe’s response to Datan and Aviram. In the past Moshe had been subjected to harsh criticism. However, in each instance the people were responding to a real or perceived need. If they questioned Moshe’s leadership, they did so as an expression of their frustration with the suffering they believed that they were enduring or the danger that they perceived. It is true that in some of these instances the complaints and criticisms included harsh, even scathing, assessments of Moshe’s leadership. However, these challenges to Moshe’s authority were not the fundamental element or focus of the people’s grievances.

Datan and Aviram’s charges were different from these previous criticisms. They directly and intentionally attacked Moshe’s leadership. They challenged his authority as king. This was the essence of their attack. Moshe was not permitted to overlook or forgive this behavior. As one appointed by Hashem to serve as king of the nation, he was not authorized to overlook this attack. A king is not permitted to absolve his subjects from the responsibility to treat him with respect.10

7. Respect for an individual and respect for an institution

Moshe’s anger was not limited to Datan and Aviram. It extended to Korach and his other followers. He directed them to offer the incense. Moshe knew that the execution of this test would result in the death of his opponents. Datan and Aviram had directly attacked his authority as king. He had no alternative to punishing them. He did not have the right to overlook their behavior. Why did Moshe’s anger extend to Korach and his other followers?

It is very possible that Moshe determined that there was little or no distinction between Datan and Aviram, Korach, and the other members of the insurgency. True, Datan and Aviram had expressed themselves more explicitly. However, the same message was central to Korach’s accusations. He charged Moshe with seizing control of the people and asserting an unjustified and inappropriate authority. However, there is an additional element that was fundamental to Korach’s rebellion.

As explained above, a father and teacher can forego aspects of the respect and reverence due to them. A king does not have this authority. This distinction suggests a fundamental difference between the respect paid a parent and teacher compared to the respect due the king. The parent and the teacher are the specific objects of the respect. Because the respect of the child and student is shown to the specific individual parent and teacher respectively, these individuals can forego aspects of the respect. In other words, the parent and teacher have a right to be treated with respect and reverence. As a right, it is subject to the preferences of the person who is endowed with the right. The parent or teacher – the individuals who possess the right – can forgo it.

Apparently, the king lacks the authority to forego the respect due to him because the respect is not rendered to the individual king but to the institution and authority of the position. In other words, the individual king is, in a practical sense, the object of the respect and reverence. However, it is not truly the individual king that the subjects are obligated to respect. They are obligated to demonstrate respect and reverence for the institution of kingship and the authority associated with the institution. The king cannot forgo the respect due him, because this respect is not a right with which the individual king is endowed.

8. The unique element of Korach’s rebellion

Datan and Aviram rebelled against Moshe as king. Because they attacked the institution of kingship, Moshe was not empowered to forbear or overlook their behavior. The political structure of a society or community is the basis for order and peace. Without political institutions, society cannot function. Therefore, basic and fundamental respect for these institutions is essential and it is not in the power of the person who occupies the position of authority to forego the respect due the institution.

The same reasoning applies to the Kahunah – the priesthood. Korach and his followers did not attack Aharon; they decried the legitimacy of the very institution of Kahunah. Moshe and Aharon repeatedly overlooked and forgave personal attacks against them. However, they were duty-bound to uphold respect for the institutions they represented. They could not merely forgive Korach and his followers – who attached the institution of Kahunah.

1 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:6.

2 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:5.

3 Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uzial, Tirgum on Sefer BeMidbar 16:12.

4  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:12.

5  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 4:1.

6 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 6:11.

7  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 4:10.

8  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:11.

9  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 6:8.

10  Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai HaGRIZ on T’NaCH and Aggadah, Parshat Korach #130.