Korach & the Dangers of Political Revenge Fantasies

This Dvar Torah was written by Dr. Bella Tendler Krieger, CAJE’s Director, Adult Learning and Growth. To see summer course offerings for July and August, visit CAJEADULTLEARNING.ORG

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

The Korach revolt, described in this week’s Torah portion, reads as pure political fantasy. For anyone who has lain awake at night dreaming of revenge, it is deliciously satisfying -- at least at first. Not only does God publicly side with Moses and Aaron against the rebels who want to usurp their roles, but he also splits the earth beneath their feet, swallowing them whole before the entire nation!


There is no clearer indication of God’s preference. Yet somehow, this divine refereeing does not quash the revolt. Two-hundred and fifty contenders to Aaron’s high priesthood continue to challenge his office by offering incense, a job reserved for Aaron’s family.


Here God intervenes again. He sends a heavenly fire to consume the pretenders to ash. He then instructs Aaron’s son to collect the incense pans the opponents had used in their failed revolt and hammer them down to plate the alter. This is a warning to posterity: do not mess with Aaron, the rightful High Priest!


At this point, you’d have to be mad to open your mouth. Yet again the people revolt. They rail against Moses and Aaron for bringing death upon the nation. What good is your leadership if it only brings us suffering?! God is so incensed by this complaint that he strikes them with a plague that immediately kills 14,700 Israelites. Finally, (and somewhat anticlimactically,) God causes Aaron’s staff to bloom and sprout almonds, as a further demonstration of his ‘choseness’.


What is going on here? Have we shifted into satire? While it is clearly gratifying to have God demonstrate his preference in such an unequivocal manner, something has gone very wrong. Victory has morphed into horror, and even Moses and Aaron are desperate to end the bloodshed.


These terrifying miracles do not endear the people to Moses, Aaron, nor even God. While they stop challenging their authority, they lament, “Lo, we perish! We are lost, all of us lost! Everyone who so much as ventures near the Lord’s tabernacle must die! Alas, we are doomed to perish! (Numbers 17:27-28).


This hardly seems an outcome that Moses and Aaron would have wanted - a decimated people, cowed by God and terrified of the tabernacle, in which they had formerly wanted to serve. What kind of love could remain between the people and their leadership at this point? These awesome power plays seem hopelessly counterproductive.


I believe there is a lesson here for our own age. With the airing of the first presidential debate in Atlanta last week, we’ve crashed headlong into the 2024 election cycle. We all know it is going to be ugly. We barely made it through the last presidential cycle with our friends and families intact. But perhaps we can learn something from the spiraling mess of the Korach story.


As righteous as our cause might be, and as clearly favorable our candidate, we need to be wary of the dangers inherent in political power struggles. Clear victories are rarely clear, and they often exacerbate the problems they were meant to solve. We will not defeat our political rivals by playing out revenge fantasies and we will only undermine the civic project in which we all want to engage.


The political stakes feel as high as they have ever felt, but we need to approach our struggle with an eye on the actual goal: a more unified country in service of its people. May we have the wisdom to build it!

Shabbat Shalom