Parshat Korach 2019
When did the story of Korach’s rebellion take place: two months out of Egypt, just after the sin of the golden calf, or two years later, somewhere in the desert and just before the narrative hop-skip-jumps 38 years to the final year in the desert? And what kind of rebellion was it anyway?
The story of Korach is the fourth in a series of attacks, purportedly against Moshe’s leadership. First there was Kivrot Hata’ava where the people demanded meat meat meat after which they were killed killed killed. This rebellion was against Moshe – and God. Next came the malicious gossip by Miriam and Aharon about Moshe, a personal attack whose aim is not quite clear but whose consequences for Miriam were very clear. Then came the fiasco of the spies, another breach of faith in God. And then there was Korach.
As Hagai Misgav points out, the stories reflect a gradual dissolution from reality among the Israelites as they wend through the desert. For example, we know where and when the first stories, of the meat and the gossip, occurred. Yet where the Israelites were camped when the spies took a jaunt through Canaan is not immediately clear and when it took place is inferred more or less by calculating how long the punishment lasted. With Korach we are in limbo. No place. No time. That’s what their reality is like.
We have other indications of loss of cohesion. Korach is the first person mentioned in this rebellion but let’s not forget Datan and Aviram. The story shifts between two venues: outside the tabernacle for Korach and near the tents of Datan and Aviram. In essence, two different revolts are occurring simultaneously.
Even the punishment is not clear. We know what happened to Datan and Aviram – they and their tents and their possessions were all swallowed up by the earth. It says Korach was swallowed up with his family, so what do we make of psalm 49 attributed to the sons of Korach? And why were there different punishments – open earth, conflagration that immolated the 250 princes and a plague that took out 14,700 Israelites?
Misgav suggests that this is part of the purpose of the narrative, to make US feel as lost as our ancestors felt in the desert as they seemed to be losing touch with reality and with life. The last words the desert-people say in the story of Korach and its aftermath are: “Will we perish totally?”
One way of resolving the questions that arise is to view the structure of the story as a reflection of both the events and of the main idea. While the main crisis seems to be related to leadership, a second, no less potent crisis is the people’s belief in God.
As we saw last week in the story of the spies, the people are unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for their lives and their missions. They refuse to believe in themselves, and because they can’t believe in themselves they can’t believe in their God.
Every cloud has a silver lining, for someone, especially one with ambition. For that person, crises are a boon. The rebels are the original downtrodden, the ones who see where they want to be – where they think they SHOULD be – and cannot accept their lower status. And they also want what they think are the fruits of high office.
Korach is a Levite, like Moshe and Aharon. Moshe is the leader, Aharon is the priest. Why not Korach? Datan and Aviram and Onn are of the tribe of Reuven, the firstborn. Shouldn’t theirs be the leading tribe instead of Yehuda? The 250 princes lost their position as the most important people in each tribe after the golden calf debacle. Is that fair?
This is the fertile ground from which Korach reaped the fruits of the others’ discontent. At a time when the people were reeling from the news that they would die in the desert, that their children would enter the land, but they themselves would not – why not transfer the general feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration to a more tangible object of criticism than the ineffable God – blame the leader and also replace him! Win-win!
Whether Korach worked in cahoots with Datan and Aviram or whether they just happened to spring their revolts at the same time, the result is that Moshe is overwhelmed. The usual battle, of getting the people to believe in God’s word, almost takes a back seat to a new phenomenon: personal and vicious attacks on Moshe’s integrity. It’s like the classic question that a lawyer asks a witness: “Yes or no: Is your sister still a prostitute?” “But I don’t HAVE a sister!” “Answer yes or no!” What do you say?
The Korach story is the final fade-out from the present dissolution of cohesion. When we fade in again, in two weeks, with Balak and Bilaam, 38 years will have passed and the new Israelites will be preparing to enter the land. Something happened during those missing 38 years, they grew up.
Are we on our way to moral, social and conscious dissolution? Anyone who follows the news knows that we create enough of our own crises and have a surplus of in-house detractors and accusers. History teaches us (if we let it) that changes driven by people with vested interests usually lead to a worse situation than the original. Let us hope and pray that we are not en route to a blackout period of 38 years or however long, before we can get our act together, set ourselves right and become the holy congregation that Korach, apparently incorrectly, insisted we were back then.