Korach and the Fight for Equality
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Korach, who had lived through Egypt, seen the ten plagues, walked across the split Red Sea, and stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, started a mutiny against Moshe (Moses). Who was this lunatic?
Believe it or not, tradition states that Korach was one of the gedoley hador, one of the greatest Torah luminaries of his generation. Korach had been a tzaddik, a righteous man, even according to the criteria of the Torah that later found his final acts so wanting.
You see, the leader of the rebellion against Moshe and Aharon had genuinely convinced himself that he was serving his nation. Values like equality and justice were his battle-cry against a leadership that he claimed had “distanced themselves from the people”. His slogan? “For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy and Hashem is among them; why do you exalt yourselves?” (Numbers-Bamidbar 16:3)
Korach and his minions did not doubt the justness of their path. So confident were they of their own righteousness that even a test of life and death didn’t faze them. They agreed without a moment of hesitance. The test would prove the answer to a simple question: did Moshe and Aharon (Aaron) elect themselves to leadership, or did their authority come from the Almighty?
Korach’s group knew exactly what awaited them was their accusation against Moshe and Aharon to be proven wrong. The test would be whether the Almighty accepted the incense brought from their own hands just as He received the incense brought by Moshe and Aharon. Failure would classify their rebellion as mutiny and had certain divine consequences.
Nonetheless, Korach and his men were ready to risk it all. “So they took each man his fire-pan and they placed fire on them and put incense on them; and they stood at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting with Moshe and Aharon.” (ibid 18)
The end is known.
Korach and his entire family were swallowed up by the earth. And the rest of his sordid party? “A flame came forth…and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.” (ibid 35)They were burned alive.
But a look into the midrashic commentaries on this event reveals that this story isn’t describing some crazy gang that lived outside the law and clashed with normative society. It’s talking about some of the finest people in the nation. People who had a goal. People who purportedly believed in their values and were willing to stick by them…to the bitter end.
But similar to the spies in Parashas Shelach, it was the core that was rotten. Despite the proud external trappings, in infinitesimal virus living in Korach’s heart proved to be his downfall and the downfall of all those who followed him. Korach, allowing a poor character trait to go unchecked, found it becoming the dominant motivation in his personality. Linked eternally with the bitterness of mutiny, quarrel, and rebellion, Korach’s name has gone down in history – but not the way he had hoped.
What happened to the man the Torah admits had been a mighty tzaddik and scholar? What human weakness tripped him over the abyss of his personal annihilation?
These questions pave our path to an uncomfortably familiar place. It seems that Korach’s fiery idealism began with the familiar human trait of envy. Simple envy, a minimal mar upon the sterling character of a man so important and honorable. Korach wasn’t even aware of it. It didn’t affect his everyday life until the moment that Elitzaphan ben Uziel became the divinely appointed leader of the tribe of Levi (as Rashi described in the name of the Midrash).
The moment that took place, envy sprang into action. It awakened to life and began dictating the course of Korach’s thoughts and behaviors. Envy stole his inner peace, wreaked terror on his sense of personal freedom, and bullied him into a terrible corner. Would Korach fight back? Instead Korach adopted a victim mentality: he had been slighted and, with feelings so wrong, how could it be right?
The position he felt to be unjustly wrested away from him filled him with envy. It didn’t take long to donkey him into belligerence, which was just a quick hop, skip, and a jump away from criticism and accusation. Mutiny wasn’t far behind.
It isn’t hard to see how belligerence and complaint can morph into an ideology given half the chance. Self-appointed victims can easily begin to believe in the purity of their own intentions. The rumblings of rebellious voices began to reach Moshe as the group drew itself together to oppose him.
And all because of a “small” leadership position that Korach didn’t receive. A position that not so long ago had not even interested him was now the cancerous secret behind an entire social movement.
This is the powerful message Parashas Korach is trying to get across to us. It’s a warning, a cautionary tale against the snow-ball effects and consequences of simply envy. It led Korach to destruction. It is said in Pirkey Avos to “remove a man from the world”. It blinds the eyes of its followers and gladly signs their final decree.
Since then and to this day.