“Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kehat, son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram, son of Eliav, and On, son of Pelet, sons of Reuven, took [themselves to one side]. They arose before Moshe and with them two hundred and fifty people from the children of Israel, princes of the congregation, the distinguished of the convocation, people of renown. They assembled against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them: It is too much for you, as the entire congregation, all of them are holy, and the Lord is among them; why do you elevate yourselves over the assembly of the Lord.” (Bamidbar 16:1-3).

Our parsha opens with the dramatis personae of the infamous insurrection that took place in the camp of the Israelites. On the one side are the claimants: Korach, an esteemed member of the Kehat-family of Levites; Datan, Aviram and On, leading figures from the Tribe of Reuven and two hundred and fifty unnamed men, all of whom were “princes of the congregation.” Their opponents, the defendants: Moshe and his brother, Aharon, the Cohen Gadol. The claim: the entire nation is holy, every person heard God’s voice at Sinai and yet you (Moshe and Aharon) dare to lord it over the people! The ensuing rebellion was catastrophic and resulted in the death of all of the claimants, save one. Only On ben Pelet escaped the supernatural death of his fellow rebels. He was saved by his wife, but that is a story for another time.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:21) states, “Any dispute for the sake of heaven will have enduring value, but any dispute not for the sake of heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.” The wording of this Mishna is glaringly asymmetrical. In regards to the example of a dispute for the sake of heaven, both sides of the dispute are mentioned: Hillel and Shammai. But regarding the example of a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven, only one side of the dispute is mentioned, namely Korach and all his company. Why did the author of the Mishna not write, “the dispute of Korach and Moshe?”

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (in Yachel Yisrael) offers several suggestions to explain the wording of the Mishna. The first answer is that there was only one side of this dispute. Moshe and Aharon had no interest in this dispute which was not for the sake of Heaven. They did not initiate the dispute and they also made several attempts to stop it before it got out of hand, as recorded in the text (see Rashi on 16:5 and 16:12). Even when they were compelled to respond to Korach’s claims, they did so not to protect their own reputations but rather for the honour of Hashem. This is clear from the narrative (16:11), “Therefore, you and all your congregation who are in effect congregated against the Lord, and Aharon, what is he that you bring complaints against him?” Rabbi Steinsaltz comments (Humash, Weisfeld Edition), “When Moshe saw that Korach and his congregation were casting doubt on the reliability of his claims that he and his brother were chosen by God, he feared for the status of the entire Torah.”

His second answer is very perceptive. The Mishna is accurate and symmetrical. In the case of Korach, the two parties to the dispute were “Korach” and “all his company.” The rebels were only united for expedient and opportunistic reasons but each had his own agenda, as is often the case in such disputes, as the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Korach was obsessed with becoming the Cohen Gadol. He was, after all, from the Tribe of Levi and from the same family as Aharon. Datan, Aviram and On had no such interest. They were from the tribe of Reuven not Levi. Their issue with Moshe and Aharon was the fact that their tribe, Reuven, the firstborn of Yakov, was not the leading tribe. That honour was given to Yehudah, the fourth-born son of Yaakov. Yehudah marched in front of the camp and the kings of Israel (other than Saul) were all descendants of Yehudah. The appointment of Yehudah as the royal tribe had already happened sometime before but it was only now, when Korach dared to rebel against Moshe, that Datan and Aviram grabbed the opportunity and launched their own opposition. Rabbi Lau notes that this explanation works very well with the grammar of the opening verse of the parsha. The Torah states that Korach, Datan, Aviram and On “took themselves to one side.” The verb “took” (vayikach) is in the singular form even though there are three subjects in the verse. This indicates that each party had his own agenda and that their partnership was extremely tenuous.

The Shelah (Rabbi Yishayah HaLevi Horowitz in the section Torah Or) makes a similar observation about this dispute. He notes that the three groups in Korach’s rebellion correspond to the three characters in the first verse of the book of Tehillim, “Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, has not stood in the path of sinners and has not sat in the company of scoffers.” Korach is described by our Sages as a scoffer (see Rashi to 16:19, citing Midrash Tanchuma # 8). He derided Moshe and mocked him by ‘proving’ that the laws he commanded the people were the product of his own imagination and not Divine in origin. Datan and Aviram are called “wicked” (Bamidbar 16:26). They were perennial troublemakers who had a history of evil behaviour including informing on Moshe to Pharaoh when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster (see Rashi to Shmot 2:13 and 15). The two hundred and fifty leaders who offered incense when Moshe told them that Hashem would choose the true Cohen Gadol from their midst are called “sinners” (17:3). They knew full well that only one man would emerge as the victor and yet, each was prepared to offer incense, an act that could result in certain death if not commanded by Hashem (see Vayikrah 10:1-2). Usually one only encounters these three types of people at different times. However, in Korach’s rebellion, they all converged at the same time in the same place and the result was nothing less than disastrous.

Korach’s rebellion was doomed to failure from the outset. Even if God had not intervened and brought about its miraculous end, it would eventually have crumbled from the inside as the different factions vied for power. This can often be the failure of coalition politics. Two or more political parties join forces against the ruling party to weaken their power. No sooner have they unseated their opponent before they start to disintegrate from within as their various agendas clash. We have seen this locally, and unfortunately, in Israel, where coalitions have resulted in an unstable government. Few are the disputes for the sake of Heaven!

Good Shabbos

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:


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