History’s First Anti-Torah Propaganda
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Korach was not the young rabble-rouser that may come to mind when we picture his insurgence against Moshe (Moses). Korach was a man of stature in his own right: wealthy, righteous, and learned. As Moshe’s cousin, he was a Levite, and part of the group designated to carry the holy aron (Ark of the Covenant).
What was it then, that provoked him against his cousin, the great leader? What was he thinking when he gathered the Jews to rebel against Moshe’s divinely ordained command? Korach was surely aware that it was the Almighty Who had chosen Moshe. The entire world had witnessed how the Almighty had worked the ten plagues through him! The Jewish People, some two million men, women, and children, had all heard the Almighty call out, “Moshe, Moshe, come up to the mountain,” and seen Moshe ascend Mount Sinai to receive the rest of the Torah. They had waited while he resided on high for forty days and forty nights learning the Torah from the Almighty. How had Korach been able to “forget” that Moshe’s appointment was direct Divine intent?
Only one word can summarize the mighty blinding force that could lead to such a blatant oversight: envy.
Oh, Korach had accepted that his cousin Moshe was clearly greater than he, and had even resigned himself to the fact that his cousin Aharon (Aaron) had been appointed as Kohen Gadol (high priest). But when Moshe chose Elizaphan, whose position in the hierarchy of the tribe was lower than that of Korach, to be the head of the tribe of Levi, something inside Korach snapped.
At least that position should go to me, Korach thought. Maybe Korach had been banking on receiving that honor for quite some time. We can’t know, but what we know for sure is that once his envy got the better of him, his backslide took place remarkably quickly. The fact that Elizaphan’s position was also by G-d’s word alone, not nepotism on Moshe’s part, became a fact that Korach chose to ignore from that moment on.
Driven by the force of envy, Korach began to plant seeds of mutiny in the hearts of the nation. His twisted intentions began to emerge into reality with classic demagogical technique.
Articles and speeches based on rhetoric and propaganda are nothing new for our generation. These oratorical techniques pounce on the stirring or shocking element of a given situation, something out of the ordinary that neither proves nor exemplifies any larger trends, and use this example as though it representative the full scope or true nature of the situation. In common terms, it’s called manipulation: sophisticated concepts are referred to, but not explained. Slogan and mottos are used out of context to fuel misled listeners into a fire of confused enthusiasm, rousing the superficial rush brought on by a charismatic leader, but secretly praying on the gullibility and weakness of the masses. These sorts of articles, speeches, and arguments do not stand up to critical thinking. They’re designed to undermine critical thinking, but melt like water when exposed to simple logic.
The Midrash describes Korach’s strategies for playing on Jewish heartstrings:
What did he do? He gathered everyone, as it says, “Korach assembled all the congregation against them” (Numbers 16:19). He began with words of mockery: “A widow lived in my vicinity with her two orphaned daughters. She had a field, and when she came to plow it, Moshe told her, ‘Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together.’
When she began to plant, Moshe said to her, ‘Do not plant your field with hybrids.’
When it was time to harvest and gather in the produce, he told her, ‘Leave gifts for the poor: from what you harvest, from what drops, and a corner of the field.’
When she took it to the threshing floor, he said, ‘Give terumah – a contribution, and the various types of tithes.’
She resigned herself to the will of the Almighty, and gave [these contributions] to him. Then she sold the field and bought two sheep in order to use their fleece for clothing and in order to enjoy their wool.
When the first lambs were born, Aharon came to her and said, “Give me the first born lambs.” She once again accepted the command and gave them to him. When it came time to shear them, he said, “Give me the first of the fleece.”
The woman said, “I have no more strength to withstand this. I am going to slaughter them.” When she slaughtered them, he told her, “Give me the forearm, the cheeks, and the stomach.”
She replied, “Even when I kill them I am not saved from him? Then I will consecrate them to G-d.”
So he said, “Then give them to me, as the Torah says, ‘Every consecration amongst Israel will be yours.’”
He took the sheep and went away, leaving her and her two daughters crying.
Korach used the pitiable widow as a foil upon which to draw the image of the leaders as selfish and cruel. Yet where does the moral standard demanding great care for a widow’s wellbeing and dignity come from in the first place? Torah teaches: “You shall not afflict any orphan or widow” (Leviticus 22:21). That’s where. “Do not take the widow’s garment as a pledge” (Devarim 24:17). There as well. These are just two of the Torah’s many admonitions to be sensitive to widows and orphans, to bring them joy, and to empathize with their position. Korach turned the story on its head, presenting himself as the benefactor of society’s unfortunates, and the Torah’s priests and other representatives as their heartless exploiters: demagogy at it’s finest.
You see, Korach’s story deals with fields and crops. It had never happened. The Jewish people, still travelling through the desert, had never encountered the possibility for agricultural dealings, to say nothing of hybrids and tithes. The Jews had not yet had a chance to practice the agricultural laws and gifts to the poor. The whole situation was the product of Korach’s malicious imagination. Simply put, the man was lying.
Korach incorporated other elements of modern-day propaganda as well. His one-sided story entirely ignored the important roles the priests and Levites played for the entire nation, and the fact that most of them were poor, spending their time teaching the nation G-d’s Torah and serving in the Temple for the spiritual sake of the people. The widow’s story failed to mention the Heavenly blessing pouring down on those who set aside a portion of their resources for tzedaka (charity) such as tithes to the priests and the poor, not to mention the absurd exaggeration Korach worked in, hinting that the amount that each person had to give made the priests wealthy off the backs of the poor. What a joke! The priests were the poor.
Logical analysis further notes that after giving the first lambs, or the first of the wool, the widow would have been able to keep the rest. The irrational decision to kill the two sheep was commanded by no one, certainly not Moshe, Aharon, or the Almighty.
But Korach hadn’t cared about his listeners enough to tell them the truth and present the whole picture. All he had cared about had been his own insidious agenda.
Unfortunately, the same often applies today. Speakers, writers, and other sources superficially firing off against the Torah or any of it’s commandments almost never present the whole story. Most are not even educated enough to be aware of the whole story themselves. When we encounter people, articles, or arguments like this, we can remember Korach. Did he tell the whole truth? No. He told whatever it was convenient for him to tell in light of his own personal vendetta. In his case, it was envy. In other cases, the agenda may be something else, but the result is the same: the unfortunate rhetoric and demagogy of anti-Torah propaganda.