Parashat Korah

Selfish Revolution

Korah and his followers masked their quest for personal power and gain as a desire for an egalitarian, democratic society.

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Moshe's words are interesting. At first glance, he seems to not get it; Korah presented himself as a champion of equality before God--"the entire community, all of them, are holy"--and Moshe is trying to placate him by reminding him that he is in fact a big shot, part of the establishment, a Levite. It would seem that Moshe saw through Korah's claim that he was representing "the entire community" and understood that he was simply out to gain more power for himself; "you also ask for priesthood?" Moshe knows that this is what is really hiding behind Korah's egalitarian spiel: the desire for more personal power.

The Rabbis pick up on Moshe's understanding of Korah's true motivation, and traditionally discount the seriousness of Korah's commitment to the "community" and the "congregation," and see these claims as simply ploys in his attempt to consolidate more power for himself. This is, of course, a dynamic that, tragically, has played itself out over and over again in any number of 20th century "People's Republics."

After telling Korah what he really thinks of him, Moshe then sends for Datan and Aviram, the non-Levites, regular Israelite "rank-and-file" supporters of Korah's rebellion. We will never know what Moshe intended to say to them, for they refuse to meet with him, but they damn themselves with their own words: "We will not go up! Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness, that you should rule over and continue to rule over us? You haven't even taken us to a land flowing with milk and honey to give us an inheritance of field and vineyard?we will not go up!" It seems clear that personal gain--"field and vineyard"--is what they were after.

At this point Moshe loses it: "And Moshe got very angry and he said to God 'do not turn to their offering, not even one donkey of theirs have I taken, I haven't done anything bad to any one of them.'"

Pretty strange response, eh? And what's up with the donkey? I think we should compare Moshe's response here with the words of Datan and Aviram and with what Moshe says about Korah. They are depicted as wanting, taking, desiring things for themselves--"you also ask for priesthood?" "you haven't give[n] us an inheritance of field and vineyard?"

Moshe's words make clear the profound gap between them and him--"not even one donkey of theirs have I taken?"--My relationship with power, leadership, government, has never been about improving my own situation, it has not been about my taking things. (Interestingly, the parsha begins with the words "Vayikah Korah"--"and Korah took," which would seem to summarize his basic mind set.) Therefore, Moshe says to God, do not turn to them and their offering, do not choose them, because their understanding of leadership is one that is rooted in self-aggrandizement, in material gain, and is therefore unacceptable.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.