By Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner
Our Torah reading takes its name from its central figure, Korach. More than a few years ago, this was my bar mitzvah parsha.
As a 13-year-old, my perspective of the Korach story was simplistic: A mob gathered to express their disappointment in Moses and Aaron; they wanted to take over as leaders. Today, however, I see in the tale of Korach an historical tipping point: This was a true social, political and religious moment of change!
Abba Eban observed that the first reference to Israel as a “people” comes in the book of Exodus, “vayilonu ha-am”— “the People complained.” “This people entered history in a querulous mood, and they have remained in that posture fairly consistently ever since.”
What were the complaints of Korach and the rebels to create this boiling point?
Firstly, the Torah itself makes the case for the uprising. The rebels claimed they left Egypt promised freedom, life in a land of plenty and divine protection on their way. But after the fiasco of the spies’ report and their punishment — now they are terrified! Why?
They must die in the desert, and they’re told it is their fault. They failed to believe in themselves and God. Bummer! And now the demagogues strike!
Secondly, Korach is a Levite and questions the special position of Aaron to the disqualification of all other Levites. But Moses chose him! Moses? Aaron is his brother! And it’s to be permanent? Eligibility for kohen status is reserved only for Aaron’s descendants — forever?
What of the remaining Levites? They are limited to assisting priests, performing with Temple chores, carrying and cleaning. Nepotism! This outraged Korach, and he easily found Levitical supporters. Revolting. Literally!
A third contributing factor began earlier with Abraham and Isaac. While they had led the family based upon the rule of the first-born son’s right, Jacob broke that hereditary custom. He promoted Judah, the fourth-born, based on merit above Reuben, his first-born.
After the Exodus, three especially disappointed Reubenites ally with Korach. Were they simply jealous of Moses as a leader? Or was there popular dissatisfaction with Moses. Do Israelites blame him for their hunger, thirst and dashed dreams — for seizing the leadership although not the first-born nor a Reubenite? Now they charged Moses for “bringing them into desert to die.”
I suggest that these factors unite to create a major shift in Israel’s model of leadership. Korach, Levites and the Reubenites resisted such a seismic change in this new religious and political dynamic. They preferred the previous model which they had known for generations, was familiar and in which they had leadership clout, not Moses and Aaron.
This is, literally, no longer your grandfather’s Israel. It is the cusp of a new Israel, emerging from Egypt with a reconfiguration of religious authority. And everyone senses there probably are many more changes ahead.
However, the story remains very complicated, conflating perhaps different sources and traditions. Our sages apparently felt this was incomplete. They created commentary, known as midrash, to fill these gaps.
We read midrash today as if their creative details were facts. Midrash broadens an event to provoke deeper inquiry.
How did Korach do his thing? He confronts Moses with a trick question, asking, “Does a library full of scriptural books need a mezuzah?”
Moses answered him: “Yes, even a Torah library needs a mezuzah.” Then Korach points out, “Since the whole Torah has thousands of verses in it and many Torah books do not exempt the library, how can only a few verses in a mezuzah fulfill your law?”
Korach twists the argument, revealing his real purposes to a listening mob: “This failure of your own logic proves that these are not laws about which you have been commanded by God. Rather you are inventing them out of your own heart.” Now, the scene is set for him to replace the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
Remember, however, it’s a midrash — a rabbinic creation filling in for what is not written. Did this conversation truly occur, or is it an example of what might have taken place? But this is one example of how our sages interpreted Torah to provide each generation with laws and parables taught in the Torah.
Remember Abba Eban’s observation? It has been our people’s nature to debate each other across the centuries in a constant search for truth and authenticity.
Moses was right because he was satisfied with his allotment in life. Korach was wrong because he was not satisfied with his lot in life.
As we follow the story of Korach, his allies and their self-serving rebellion, hopefully we will be encouraged to live by another rabbinic adage: “Who is rich?” “Whoever is content with their portion.”
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner is the president of Traditional Kosher Supervision, Inc. He also teaches online and has led hands-on teacher-student-parent workshops. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.