Commentary for Korach

7 Jul

In this week’s parshah Moses and Aaron face a rebellion. A man named Korach gathers up a large group of followers from across all of the tribes and they level a very interesting charge at Moses and Aaron: “You have too much; for the entire community- all of them- are holy and the Lord is among them; why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord (Num. 16:3)?”

It is an intriguing question. All throughout Jewish history we have seen God speak through individuals of all types. Eli was the High Priest. Samuel was born a commoner, but with the promise that he would serve God all of his life. Deborah was a commoner, but one noted for her wisdom. Amos was just a regular guy off the street. Yiftach was the son of a harlot, born out of wedlock and rejected by his family. And God spoke through all of them.

Looking at it through this lens, Korach and his followers seem to have a point. Didn’t God tell them at Mount Sinai that “you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19:6)?” So what makes Moses and Aaron so special that God only speaks through them? The text even goes out of its way to tell us that Korach’s initial 250 followers were all “chieftains of the assembly, those summoned for meeting, men of repute (Num. 16:2).” Surely there must have been at least one among them who were worthy of this honor?   Or, to put it another way, “why Moses and Aaron but not me?”

Despite the seeming jealousy behind such a sentiment, some commentators actually praise it (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) or at least do not paint it as a negative thing to have (Rashi, Tanchuma), seeing such a sentiment as driven by a desire to have a closer relationship with God. People only get jealous of others for having something that they themselves desire. And yet it seems strange that they express their desire to have a closer relationship with their omniscient Creator by criticizing that Creator’s decisions. Surely, if God is omniscient then God must have a good reason for only speaking through Moses and Aaron?

Moses’ reaction to their accusation is recorded as “he fell on his face (Num. 16:4),” a phrase used to indicate prayer. Strangely, no record of Moses’ petition or a response from God is recorded. Moses then replies to Korach and his followers with the following challenge: The next morning each of them will take some of the incense used for the incense offering, put it in his own fire pan, and offer it up to God in front of the Tent of Meeting. From this God will indicate who will be chosen to lead the community.

The next morning, Korach and his followers all do as Moses had instructed, and Moses and Aaron submit a fire pan of incense as well. Strangely, it is only at this point that God seems to take notice of this rebellion. God’s reaction is rather harsh, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this community that I may annihilate them this instant (Num. 16:21)!” Moses and Aaron respond to this by falling on their faces and petitioning God not to punish the entire community for the sins a minority of the individuals. God relents, instead having Moses and Aaron order the rest of the Israelites to separate themselves from Korach’s followers. Then God makes the ground open up and swallow Korach, his followers, and all of their possessions. It is the actions of Moses and Aaron in this section that show us exactly why God chose to speak to the community through them instead of Korach or any of those who joined with him.

This incident comes shortly after God finally gets fed up with the Israelites constant rebellion and decrees that this entire generation shall die out in the desert and only their children shall set foot in the Promised Land. And now here are the Israelites rebelling yet again. Moses has devised a plan to hopefully quell the rebellion before God needs to intercede, but worries that he has already pleaded for the Israelites so many times that God will not listen anymore. God’s response is not recorded because God’s lack of response is approval for Moses to go ahead with his plan.

The challenge of offering up an incense offering to God is one that is rife with symbolism. The incense offering was only offered by the priests or used to inaugurate the Tabernacle or a new High Priest. If anyone else used it- or even created a facsimile of it- that person would be spiritually removed from the Jewish People. By instructing them to offer the incense, Moses was asking them to do something that Korach and his compatriots, being chieftains and learned men, would know was strictly forbidden.

The incense offering was made from a mixture of many different fragrances to represent the many different types of individuals who comprise the Jewish People. Only when all are mixed together can the desired aroma be achieved. This aroma was offered to God on behalf of all of the Jewish People, and was used to inaugurate the High Priest, who would represent them before God on Yom Kippur. Two of the ingredients in the incense were fragrant cinnamon and fragrant cane, at exactly 250 weights of each: The same as the number of followers Korach had. Moses hoped that sending them home with instructions to offer the incense tomorrow, giving them a day to think about, would make them think of these connections and would remind them that they each already have their own special connection with God; that there is no need for them to desire the specific role played by Moses and Aaron as God’s voice to the Israelites, and thus they would hopefully not show up in the morning to offer the forbidden incense offering in an attempt to claim it.

Moses’ plan fails, and when Korach and his followers show up and offer the forbidden offering, God becomes angry and plans to destroy them. At this point Moses and Aaron both beseech God not to destroy the entire community because of a few sinners. In their petition, they refer to God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh (Num. 16:22),” a phrase only used one other time in the entire Torah. That other time is Num. 28:16, when Moses asks God to ensure that whoever his successor is will be the leader who is best for the people. That mindset is the difference between Moses and Aaron and Korach and his followers. Even in the face of having the legitimacy of their leadership challenged, Moses and Aaron acted with the best interests of the entire community in mind, every step of the way, while Korach and his followers, no matter how worthy their intensions were, acted only in their own interests. It is this that makes Moses and Aaron worthy of their positions as leaders of the community and representatives of God.

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