Today we read Parshat Korach, one of the most violent and puzzling stories in the Torah. It describes the problems and challenges facing the Israelites in the second year after they had left Egypt, the land where they had been utterly miserable. They left Egypt in joy, praising God who had rescued them and delivered them from cruel slavery and from the armies of Pharaoh with great miracles. Now the Israelites were traveling through the Sinai Peninsula, on their way to Eretz Israel together with a mixed multitude, who had no connection to the Israelites and their belief in the Lord. The Israelites had already received the Ten Commandments and had promised to observe them. They had constructed the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary where they could meet with God. It was also the resting place of the Ark with the ten commandments. The Cohanim, led by Aaron the High Priest, offered the sacrifices and the Leviites, led by Korach, assisted them. They were safe and God provided them with water to drink and Manna to eat. They had left Egypt with their families intact and with their herds, flocks and cattle. Now they were finally free, safe and on their way to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Why were they so unhappy and complaining so bitterly? What was bothering them so much that when Korach, Dathan and Abiam rose up in revolt against Moses and Aaron, two hundred and fifty Israelites, all leaders of their tribes, willingly joined their revolt? Why did putting down this rebellion require such a dramatic and horrific punishment?
There were two very serious, but different problems. First, Korach, Dathan and Abiam wanted power, honor, glory, status, and material rewards. This is an illegitimate but common cause for a revolution. The Israelites had an even more serious problem: although they had everything they really needed to survive, they could not adjust to their totally new and very difficult life style. They had received the Lord’s Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai and had all promised to observe them. They were also relatively safe. God continued to provide them with water to drink and manna to eat. Their herds, flocks and cattle could provide them with meat and dairy products. They no longer suffered as slaves. They had even built the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary where they could worship the Lord. The Cohanim, led by Aharon, offered the sacrifices and the Levites led by Korach, assisted them. What was their problem? Why were they so miserable and constantly complaining so bitterly?
Their real problem was culture shock. They and their family had been slaves for generations. They did not have any experience in how to make decisions. They were used to having everything planned and organized for them. Their only choice was to obey or be punished. They had never talked to anyone about what you did all day when you are free. They had no experience in being allowed to think for themselves and choose how to spend their time. They did not have any experience in solving even simple everyday problems because slaves never had free choice. They were also used to living in a heavily populated area where even a slave could buy a few minimal things.
Living in a totally new environment is difficult for anyone. The lonely, barren, unpopulated Midbar would be particularly difficult for anyone, and must have been very frightening for newly freed slaves. They suffered greatly as they tried unsuccessfully to adjust to their new life. It has been said jokingly that it was easier for God to take the Israelites out of Egypt, than for God to take the slave mentality of Egypt out of the Israelites. For a former slave to have to live in the arid , totally undeveloped, unpopulated Midbar was no joke. These serious problems did not begin in this Parsha. We have been reading hints about problems developing for several weeks. The Israelites had been moving north through the Sinai peninsula and had probably reached Midbar Parran. They were less that a month’s march from Eretz Israel .
Last week we read that God told Moses to send men to spy out the land of Canaan which God had promised to give the Israelites. They were to send one man from each tribe, each a tribal leader, and they were to see what kind of land it was, whether or not it was fertile, what kind of people lived there, the level of fortification of its cities, and to bring back samples of the fruit of the land. They returned after 40 days with a very impressive sample of its fruit. However, the spies told the Israelites: the land is very fertile but the cities are well fortified and the people there are giants and very powerful. We felt like grasshoppers in our eyes, and that is how we must have appeared to them. We cannot conquer them; they are too strong for us.
The entire assembly of Israelites began to cry and complain and murmur against Moses, complaining that they would rather have died in Egypt or in the Midbar and that it would have been better to return to Egypt. Then two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, tried to calm the people. They told them the land was very good and that if it was God’s will He would bring them into this land. They cautioned the people not to rebel against God and not to fear the people for HaShem is with us. The attitude of fear and helplessness that was developing was very dangerous. The situation demanded faith in God and bravery. Unfortunately, the words of the spies affected the morale of the people and made what came next even more dangerous.
This week’s Parsha begins when Korach, one of the leaders of the Levites, and Dathan and Abiam, leaders of the tribe of Rueven, rose up in revolt against Moses. They came to Moses with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, respected men who were part of the overall leadership ready to follow them in their revolt against Moses. What did they want? Korach, of the tribe of Levi, wanted to take over Aaron’s role as High priest, which is the holiest role and the most impressive. When Aaron performed religious ceremonies, he had the honor of wearing beautiful robes with pomegranates and gold bells on its hem. Aaron was the second most important person in the community; only Moses was more important. Korach, of the tribe of Levi, believed his ancestry made him equally qualified to take over Aaron’s job. Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Rueben, felt that as direct descendants of Jacob’s first born, they should be the leaders of the Israelites. They began to manipulate the Israelite community to go against Moses and Aaron in order to overthrow them so they could replace Moses as leaders of the Israelites. They manipulated the congregation with promises and played upon their frustrations and fears until they succeeded in getting many Israelites to join them. The goal of this rebellion seems to have been a quest for power, control and honor. If they had actually succeeded in overthrowing Moses, the very survival of the Israelite community would have been endangered and God’s plan for the Israelites to share with others the values, ideas and laws of the Torah and to be a light unto the other nations would have been lost.