Korach 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)


The Israelite people come dangerously close to splitting apart in this parasha, as a man named Korach leads a group of followers to challenge Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. Korach has powerful arguments, but in a dramatic test, God demonstrates again that Moshe and Aharon are God’s choice to guide the people. The rebels are punished, and the role of all the priests and Levites, not just Aharon, is clarified. Finally, there are laws specifying that “first born” of plants, animals, and human beings is to be dedicated to God; this is the source of the ritual of pidyon haben, or redemption of the first-born.


“Moses also said to Korah, “Now listen, you Levites! Isn’t it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near to God to do the work at the LORD’s Sanctuary and to stand before the community and minister to them? God has brought you and all your fellow Levites near to God, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too!” (Numbers 16:8-10)


Korach and his followers challenge Moshe and Aharon’s authority to lead the people by claiming that the entire Israelite community was equally holy. Korach’s claim seems to be that nobody is on a higher spiritual level than anybody else, so why should Moshe and Aharon be in charge? Moshe responds by inviting Korach to a public test, to see whom God has chosen, and also by rebuking Korach for not being satisfied with the ritual role the Levites have already been given as ritual assistants in the Mishkan.


One of the great questions of Torah study is the motivation behind Korach’s rebellion. How is it that a Levite, a member of the “inner circle” of Israelite religion, and obviously an articulate and intelligent man, could or would not see that Moshe had Divine support for his leadership? One merely has to think of the plagues in Egypt, or the miracles of the manna or the water, or the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, or the fact that only Moshe went up on Mount Sinai. . . .clearly, the Torah wants to communicate that Moshe has a unique role and a special relationship with God. Why did Korach challenge Moshe? What did he think he could gain?

There are various explanations of Korach’s behavior: he wanted wealth, or power, or perhaps he felt that Moshe was making up the commandments himself. A more psychological explanation is offered by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (d. 1747- also known as the Ramchal), the author of many important philosophical, mystical, and theological works. His most famous work, the Mesillat Yesharim [Path of the Upright], is an extended treatise on the improvement of human character traits. One character trait found in almost all people is the desire for honor and acclaim; the Ramchal believes that this was what motivated Korach to challenge Moshe:

    What caused the destruction of Korach and his whole company if not the lust for honor, as we may infer from the fact that Moshe said to them, “And you want the priesthood as well? ” (Numbers 16:10) And our Sages tell us that Korach rebelled because Elizaphan, the son of Uziel, had been made prince, an appointment which he had coveted for himself.* (Mesillat Yesharim 11; translation by Mordecai Kaplan, slightly modified)

For Luzzato, the desire for honor is a form of greed, an insatiable, non-rational desire for recognition and popularity:

    Even worse than [the lust for money] is the desire for honor. A person may control his craving for wealth and for pleasure, but the craving for honor is irresistible because it is almost impossible to endure seeing oneself in an inferior position to another. This is why so many people stumble and perish. (ibid.)

Note the Ramchal’s insight that the desire for honor is relative, not absolute: what really gets under the skin is seeing someone else “above” you, not a lack of status per se. After giving a whole list of people besides Korach who got themselves into trouble because of this desire for honor, Luzzato explains that this inability to tolerate life’s inevitable inequalities is what makes so many people dissatisfied and unhappy, driven to constantly change their standing among others in outward, material ways.

Now, I don’t think the Ramchal is condoning major structural inequalities in society, or advocating that one should blindly submit to unfair or arbitrary authorities. I think he’s talking about a sense of personal insecurity, or doubting of one’s self worth, based on outward criteria like titles, possessions, or status. This is made worse in contemporary North American society, when the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” are held up as an impossible standard by which everybody else is measured.

Returning to our midrash, we note that Moshe tries to point out to Korach that he already has a wonderful role in the life of the nation- he is a Levite, dedicated to the service of God in the Sanctuary. Yet his ego and insecurity wouldn’t let him be satisfied; rather than be thankful for the opportunity to serve God in his own way, he ended up losing everything in his attempt to “make it to the top.” The lesson here is not that we shouldn’t try to improve ourselves, but that gratitude and a recognition of our gifts can reduce the importance we place on outward status.

Perhaps the story of Korach helps us to understand a saying of R. Elazar HaKappar in Pirke Avot (4:28): “Envy, irrational cravings, and honor take a person out of the world.” Sometimes we can be so obsessed with our relative status that we are unable to live our lives as they really are, always thinking about the next “step up” rather than finding joy in the present moment- this is being “taken out of the world” in a psychological sense. As Moshe implored Korach in the verses above, the challenge is to fully realize just how God has already brought us all “near to God” for the contribution of our unique gifts in the making of a better world.

*The midrash that Luzzato quotes is found in Numbers Rabbah 18.2.

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