Shabbat Korach: What were they thinking?

July 7, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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When I try to put myself into the minds of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness, I simply cannot understand their mentality (but then sometimes I don’t even understand myself). Why are they constantly complaining about everything?

The plagues in Egypt and the Exodus were miraculous. There was the constant presence of the pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. They feared death at the Red Sea, yet they came through safely.  As soon as they get to the other side there are problems with water and food that are met miraculously again. All the time they complained about Moses and Aaron when things went wrong and threatened to return to Egypt. They experienced something phenomenal at Mount Sinai and immediately after they worship a golden calf.

Earlier in the book of Numbers  Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his wife and then there were more complaints about food and water. The collapse of morale after the spies returned with negative reports led to the sentence of forty years in the wilderness. So, you might have thought that the old generation with its slave mentality had now given way to a new generation and a new mood, but no, the same old complaints.

This week we read about Korach who together with the Levites and the tribe of Reuben, led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron claiming that they had no right to impose themselves on the people, and Korach and his crew have just as much right to rule.  Now if they had been paying attention, they would have known that rebellions or stepping out of line like Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:2) who wielded the incense pans without permission and met a fiery end. Or Miriam who stepped out of line and caught leprosy (Numbers 12). So why were Korach’s acolytes so ready to bring their incense pans to test to see whose side God was on? Didn’t they know? Hadn’t they seen? Were they arrogant or stupid not to realize Moses had a very special relationship with God??

It seems to me there are several ways of looking at this, all of these mentioned in different Midrashim. One is to say that Korach was just blinded by his own ambition and wealth. Money and a political agenda. And the excuses the rebels found for their rebellion were not legitimate complaints. Without just cause. The other explanation is that it is the company you keep. “Woe to the wicked and woe to the wicked person’s neighbour,” said the rabbis. Even so, to ignore God so flagrantly given the constant Divine intervention is surely asking for trouble.

You could argue that this episode shows that it is only a minority that leads and causes the problems. If you look at the numbers involved each time and are punished, the number is relatively small. Most Israelites don’t seem to be involved. Others like to say it was only the riffraff, the mixed multitude of non-Israelites who came out with them, the disaffected, who caused the problem. And here too this is an example of how when you have a small group of dissidents they can undermine the social fabric and blackmail or bully the wider society to follow them.

But even so, since they all saw and experienced the guiding hand and spirit, did they not connect? Or did they assume that God had nothing to do with it?

There is another way of looking at this. The Torah in general is a document concerned with human behaviour and how to direct people to behave ethically and with a sense of communal identity ad cohesion. And yet it constantly records the failings as well as the positive, in every personality in the Torah, who is regarded as an important example. From Adam and Eve, Noah, and on through the founding fathers, of human mistakes, the greatest leaders and examples have their limitations. And so inevitably does everyone else. All these cases of disobeying God show how easy it is to go off the rails even for the most pious. NO matter what miracles they may have witnessed. The Torah is a document of instruction, on how to make better decisions in life, of encouragement as well as a warning of what happens when we get things wrong. Even Moses himself got it wrong at the waters of Mey Merivah as we will read next week.

When we are driven by power, greed, and egoism. We may think we can do better or know better than everyone else, but it rarely works out that way. The Torah is the first document to address the whole community, not just the leaders. And to warn against the abuse of power for selfish interests. So that even if we think we are acting out of the best of motives, we must be made aware of the possibility that we are not. This is why we all need standards and a sense of authority beyond our nature. And why having a structured way of life that reminds us daily of our obligations and responsibilities, is so important.

We need to look beyond the simple surface reading of the text of the Torah, to understand the real message.

Numbers Chapters 16 -19

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

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