God punished Korah for his inability to channel his anger into productive protest.
The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.
Parshat Korah is one of several portions that relates stories of dissension and resistance among some of the children of Israel against Moses and God during the nation’s desert wanderings. This parashah describes perhaps the most significant challenge to Moses and God’s leadership since the incident with the Golden Calf.
Korah, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, is joined by Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuben, and together they challenge Moses’ authority as a leader. They say that all of the people are part of God’s holy community, and thus who is Moses to elevate himself above the people? Further, they question why the Kohanim (priests) receive special privileges of the temple service.
Moses was quite shaken by this challenge and responded that in the morning God would indicate who should lead the people. Moses also rebukes Korah, who was a Levite, by pointing out that he already has a special status, and thus he should not agitate and challenge the Kohanim.
In the morning, God makes his preference for Moses quite clear. In a stunning passage, the earth opens up and swallows Korah, Datan, Aviram and all of their families and followers. The next day, the whole community, clearly both frightened and angered by what happened to Korah, assembles against Moses and Aaron. God is furious with this reaction, and sends a plague as punishment. Thousands die, and the plague ceases only when Moses and Aaron intercede on the people’s behalf.
The remainder of the parsha affirms Aaron as the Kohen and offers instructions to the Levites as to their responsibilities in serving the Kohanim.
We see in this parsha that challenges to recognized authority can come with grave consequences. On one hand, there is a strain within Jewish tradition that validates challenging even God directly. We recall Abraham, who challenges and bargains with God to save the wicked inhabitants of Sodom. We also have stories about the great Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who “takes God to task” for the sufferings of the Jewish people.
On the other hand, we see in our parsha that Korah’s rebellion is crushed by God. The differences between these different challenges is that God approves of protestations that are faithfully on behalf of the Jewish people. However, when self-aggrandizement or personal gain motivate the protest, God has no tolerance.