Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“And Korah Took”
Dr. Amos Barde’a
Interdisciplinary Program in Science, Sociology and Technology
Parashat Korah and the haftarah that usually goes along with it (I Sam.11-12; however, this year Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh Tammuz) both present the negative side of power, and in contrast, an alternative model of the proper type of leadership to which one should aspire.
Korah is presented as a wealthy man motivated by jealousy, lust for power, and desire to influence, who used demagogic methods to stir the people to rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He certainly chose a convenient time to launch his campaign. The people had undergone a trying experience in the wake of the sin of the spies and were in psychological distress; the spies had been smitten and the people’s chances of reaching the promised land had diminished to zero; yet they were still required to continue to wander through the wilderness to face all the hardships and trials, knowing that their efforts were to no purpose. They had arrived at a dead end that undermined their spirit and motivation to continue.
These conditions provided fertile soil for the rise of a charismatic leader who could lead a revolt against the existing leadership. Indeed, Korah challenged the people’s leaders, finding fault with them, accusing them of corruption and nepotism. He presented the leadership of Moses and Aaron as centralized control – “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3) – and put forward a proposal for alternative, decentralized leadership – “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” (ibid.).
The Task of Moses
Moses’ leadership in the wilderness was aimed at revolutionizing the consciousness of the people; after their physical exodus from Egypt, the Israelites had to go through a transition from a slave mentality to a mentality as free men and women. They had to shake themselves free of the pagan culture of Egypt, in which the deity was embedded in nature, in that which could be perceived by the senses. They had to free themselves of a culture that believed the spirit of the deceased remains for all eternity in the body of the dead, that viewed magic forces – those that can be perceived through the senses – as an expression of the divine and the spiritual. Moses’ job was to eradicate these gods of nature; to bring the people to recognize a transcendent G-d who lay beyond all that can be perceived; to acknowledge miracles whose origin lies in the will of G-d, not in magic.
Moses’ leadership was intended to bring about this revolutionary change gradually: first, miracles replaced magic; in the context of the plagues on Egypt, the Lord struck at the pagan forces of nature – the Nile, the beasts, and the first-borns, confronting the priests of Egypt and showing up their magical powers. The march through the wilderness after the exodus posed various challenges, and facing these challenges had the potential to erase the people’s slave mentality and provide the foundation for a new self-definition.
After the physical exodus to freedom, the people were about to receive their certificate of spiritual freedom. The Rabbis said about the Ten Commandments, “Do not read harut (“engraved on the two tablets”), rather herut (freedom).” The Rabbis saw that freedom could be achieved by worshipping the Lord and practicing the commandments. In accepting the Torah, the people were required to eradicate all traces of pagan worship as the first stage in forming “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In this context, Death was proclaimed by the Torah to be the quintessence of impurity, and séances with the dead were forbidden. Another step in purging their ties to the pagan rites of Egypt was accomplished by using those animals that Egypt worshipped, as sacrifices to the Almighty.
In the light of the above, we can understand the content of the counter-revolution that Korah wished to bring about. The people wished to return to Egypt, and Korah perceived this atmosphere as providing an opportune moment for turning back the tide and restoring Egyptian cultural values. This finds expression in his demand to reinstate the status of the first-borns, a special status which they had enjoyed in Egypt. The first-born in Egypt had dramatic emotional impact he on the family, which prior to that had not been considered a complete unit; therefore the first-born received special religious status and was ascribed magical powers. The plague of the first-borns, the last plague to be inflicted upon Egypt, was intended to do away with the magic power of the eldest son.
In the gradual process of extricating the Israelites from Egyptian influence, a change had evolved in the status of first-borns among the Israelites: initially they were consecrated to the Almighty, later their public functions were transferred from them and given to the Levites, a tribe that had redeemed itself from pagan Egyptian culture, its members refraining from participating in the ritual of the sin of the golden calf. The priestly class, the Kohanim, was founded genealogically on one of the Israelite tribes, just as belonging to the Israelite people was founded genealogically on being born to an Israelite woman.
However, unlike the pagan culture, the chosen status of the Israelite was not determined on the basis of genealogical belonging, and “a bastard who is a Torah scholar is more esteemed than a high priest who is a boor.”  Being the first-born does not make a person chosen, and as we know from the Torah, and as we shall see below, the Lord’s chosen one is not the first-born, rather the person who is worthy. For example, in Adam’s family, first Abel was chosen, and then Seth, though Cain was the first-born; with Abraham, Isaac was the chosen one, not Ishmael; in Isaac’s family Jacob, the younger of the twins, was chosen; of Jacob’s children, Joseph and Judah  were chosen over Reuben; and in Joseph’s family, the younger Ephraim was chosen over the elder Manasseh, and so forth. 
Obligations, Not Rights
In contrast to the pagan approach that gives rights to the first-born, the status of the Israelite places obligations upon him and does not promise rights. The Israelite has a wide variety of practical obligations, and the caste of Levites, and even more so the priests, have additional obligations. In the travels of the Israelites, for example, the elect status of the priests and Levites obliged them to carry the structure of the Tabernacle and its implements, in addition to their own porterage, and some of this they had to do without any means of transport – “their porterage was by shoulder” (Num. 7:9).
The model in which the chosen one is given more religious obligations in order to promote his spiritual perfection stands in apposition to the alternative model proposed by Korah, a model taken from the Egyptian school that views the natural fact of being first-born as a source of rights. Korah, who was the first-born son of Yizhar, incited the first-borns and presented Dathan, Eliab, and On son of Peleth as deserving the priesthood on the grounds of Reuben’s status as the senior of the tribes, and likewise the two-hundred and fifty “chieftains of the community” (whom some people interpret as having been the first-borns of the Israelites) as deserving the priesthood, which is due to the first-borns of Israel.  Korah laid claim to the sanctity which is immanent in the first-born by nature – “For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst,”  as opposed to “be holy to your G-d” (Num. 15:40), which is stated in the previous reading, in the passage of tzitzit.
The commandment of tzitzit indicates how to achieve sanctity, namely by worshipping the Lord through observance of His commandments. Korah was demagogically making fun of the need for commandments, and as the midrash on this passages says, he asked why one must have a blue thread in the tassle of a tallit when the tallit itself is entirely blue, and why one needs a mezuzah on the doorpost of a house which is filled with religious books and thus imbued with holiness anyway. Opposing the notion that sanctity is achieved through directing human will to perform commandments – “who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us” – Korah presented an alternative notion, that sanctity lies in the object itself. The a priori notion of sanctity caused Korah to demand rights and privileges simply by virtue of his being a first-born, without fulfilling the obligations; this is indicated by the opening words of this week’s reading: “Korah took”; Korah claimed for himself the rights and privileges of power and fame, contrasting with Moses’ assertion, “I have not take the ass of any one of them” (Num. 16:15), which indicated that Moses had abstained from any material benefits, leading the people altogether altruistically.
The haftarah assigned to this week’s reading has to do with the first kingdom of Israel. In it, Samuel says: “Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of His anointed one: whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you” (I Sam. 12:3). The prophet Samuel used a variation on the words of the father of all the prophets, spoken in this week’s reading. Like Moses, he too viewed power and ruling as part of serving the Lord, as having to live up to additional obligations and not as a basis for additional rights. Samuel concludes with words of warning: “For if you persist in your wrongdoing, both you and your king shall be swept away” (v. 25). These words ought to echo in the ears of Israel’s leaders for all time, for “the sons of Korah did not die” (Num. 26:11).
 Mishnah Horayot 3.8.
 David, the chosen one, came from the tribe of Judah and was the youngest of Jesse’s sons.
 Elizaphan, chieftain of the Kohathite clans, was a son of Uzziel, the youngest of Korah’s sons.
 See Ibn Ezra, loc. sit. “Korah, as well, was a first-born, for it is written: ‘On the south: the standard of the division of Reuben’ (Num. 2:10), and Korah was on the south side of the Tabernacle, because he was one of the sons of Kohath (Num. 3:29). These chieftains of the community were first-borns, and they used to give the burnt offerings; therefore they took their fire-pans.” Likewise, Nahmanides on the same verse.
 See Ibn Ezra, loc. sit. “The entire community” refers to the first-born chieftains of the community. “For all the community are holy, all of them. This hints at the first-borns, who are sanctified, for it says, ‘Consecrate to Me every first-born’ (Ex. 13:2).”