Torah Portion of the Week: Quelling Rebellions

Ariel Seri-Levi
The Punishment of Korah (detail from the fresco Punishment of the Rebels by Sandro Botticelli (1480–1482) in the Sistine Chapel.Credit: wikipedia
Ariel Seri-Levi

Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) is the formative narrative of opposition of the people of Israel. Prior to this story, there were several incidents where complaints were heard about the way Moses and Aaron were leading the nation, and – explicitly or implicitly – about God’s leadership. But now we are hearing arguments against the legitimacy of the leadership, not its policies.

As often happens in the Torah, a close reading reveals that a single story is really two different ones, woven together by an editor. In this case, the first story’s protagonists are Korach, son of Izhar, and his congregation; the second story’s are Dathan and Abiram and their supporters. Since both stories are similar in structure, plot, assertions and the way they describe dissent and the response to it – they were apparently merged. Their separation into two discreet narratives, which is probably the way they originally appeared, enables us to examine each story’s plot and the issues it raises.

Korach presents a theological argument against the concept of priesthood embodied by Aaron: “Seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3). Sanctity entails separateness: Holiness is defined as the opposite of the profane. Korach’s perception of holiness distinguishes Israel from other nations, while seeking to blot out the differences within Israel. Since God resides within the entire nation, argues Korach, any individual or group’s claim to special status within the nation is unjustified.

Dathan and Abiram are not interested in ritual. They do not recognize Moses’ authority, and they express their position by refusing to stand before him, declaring: “We will not come up. Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us? Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up” (Num. 16:12-14). Their assertive cry, “We will not come up,” appears at the beginning and end of their declaration. They argue that Moses not only led Israel out of a land of milk and honey (meaning Egypt!), but also assumed the role of leader, in return for a promise that he cannot keep.

In both stories in this week’s Torah portion, Moses initiates a two-stage process that is intended to reconfirm his authority. The second stage is similar in both stories: Moses uses divine intervention to announce to and remind Israel that he and Aaron are not acting on their own but serve as God’s authorized representatives. Although ostensibly this would be the strongest argument for legitimacy, an additional argument precedes this stage in both stories.

Moses’ reaction to Korach’s attempt to challenge his own and Aaron’s authority is to undermine Korach’s own legitimacy by exposing the rebel’s hidden interests as well as the benefits he derives from the structure he opposes. “Hear now, ye sons of Levi,” Moses addresses Korach and his supporters, reminding them of their tribal status, “Is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them; and that he hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? And will ye seek the priesthood also? Therefore thou and all thy company that are gathered together against the Lord – and as to Aaron, what is he that ye murmur against him?” (Num. 16:8-11).

The second part of Moses’ response is intended to clarify that Korach’s complaints about Aaron are essentially complaints about God. Initially, Moses argues that, according to Korach’s own logic, if “all the congregation are holy,” Korach should relinquish his own status as a member of the Tribe of Levi, which has lower standing than the priests but nonetheless participates in sacred rituals. According to Moses, what Korach wants is more power, not justice. Moses thus uses an ad hominem argument: Instead of dealing with Korach’s claims, he focuses on the challenger’s identity and objectives.

In the Dathan-Abiram story, Moses does not direct the criticism heavenward, to God, nor does he argue that these two oppositionists have vested interests. Here as well, he does not focus on their argument; instead he shifts to a personal level, albeit in a different manner. Moses senses that they are questioning his integrity, and even fears that their arguments might persuade God to doubt that integrity, and therefore prays: “Respect not thou their offering; I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them” (Num. 16:15).

Dathan and Abiram have not accused Moses of corruption; their claim is that he is an incompetent leader. However, like many leaders who are devoted to their public, Moses interprets their complaints as criticism of his integrity.

Both stories end tragically for the regime’s critics: Korach and his congregation are burned to death after a ritual trial proves God chose Aaron, not them, to serve in the sanctuary. In the parallel story, Dathan and Abiram and their entourage are swallowed up by the earth as proof that God has chosen Moses. Order is restored, but the reader is puzzled: Why are these stories included in the Torah?

The stories about criticism of the leadership during the formative years of the nation were likely intended to silence similar criticism in the future – a future that was actually the present in terms of the readers of the stories and also, apparently, their authors as well. Quite possibly the arguments used by Korach, Dathan and Abiram were also directed against various cadres among the Israelites at other times. Parashat Korach allows enables the political and religious leadership to relate to all criticism as an echo of earlier dissent and to delegitimize it, thus rendering it unnecessary to contend with that criticism.

But perhaps these stories of criticism also serve the opposite reverse purpose. Although Korach disappears, his dissent does not. Moses quells the rebellions, but their underlying reasons remain unaddressed: The claim that “all the congregation are holy” and the complaints about Moses’ leadership are neither denied nor refuted.

Parashat Korach “kills off” the regime’s critics, but preserves their words. It allows criticism, even when it is not motivated by spiritual considerations, to be transferred from generation to generation as part of the Torah itself.

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