Korach Still Lives On!
Adaptation of Son of Man by Rene Magritte - Image by Ron English
This week's Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Norman Lipson. Rabbi Lipson served as national staff of the Anti-Defamation League and as spiritual leader of congregations in Mississippi, Texas, Hollywood, FL and most recently Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, where he was the Founding Rabbi, and now is Emeritus . Rabbi Lipson is teaching the CAJE Adult Learning summer course: Chutzpah & Wisdom with a Twist
Rabbis, including this rabbi, welcome the opportunity to write a Dvar Torah in which one of the most “beloved” of Biblical villains appears in his own eponymous Torah portion-- Korach.
Born a Levite with great yichus (his great-grandfather was Levi, founder of the Tribe of Levi), along with wealth, intellect, ability and skill, Korach was greatly admired and looked up to by many Israelites.
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that Korach was a Torah scholar or Talmid Chacham because of the Halachic questions he asked Moses. They also taught that Korach was wealthy, but used his wealth, not for the benefit of the Israelites, but to further his personal goal of usurping Moses.
He stoked the fires of jealousy in aggrieved hearts of dissatisfied Levites who felt that they too had the right to serve as Priests/ Kohanim and he played upon the bruised egos of the “ anshei shem ,” i.e., the machers/ big shots of the community who felt they had been slighted by Moses .
As opposed to Moses, Korach was a dramatic speaker, easily attracting and keeping a crowd under his spell with his powerful and effective manner of speaking . In addition, he also acquired the well-known “agents provocateur,” Dathan and Aviram, as his henchmen.
How did the rabbis arrive at these conclusions? The following are rabbinic answers about what lurked in the heart and soul of Korach .
Korach was an emotionally cold and very dangerous person . That coldness was derived from his very name --Korach. The Hebrew of the Torah contains no vowels and the name Korach (קרח)- may also be read as: Kerach (קרח) which in Hebrew means “ice.” The rabbis note: כשמו כן הוא - “as his name was, so was he.” He was cold and deadly as an iceberg-- attractive from a distance, but dangerous if approached too quickly or the wrong way.
By scrambling the letters of his name, we find the word: חקר- “to examine.” Korach, a scholar, knew halacha and closely examined every aspect of Torah , not for the sake of learning, but rather to embarrass Moses while Moses was teaching Torah to the people of Israel . Rabbinic tradition records some of those questions:
“Moses our Teacher, if a house is filled with mezuzot, does it still need a mezuzah on its doorpost?” When Moses answered that it did, Korach led the laughter mocking the absurdity of Moses’ answer (even though it was correct).
“Moses our Teacher, if a four-cornered garment is composed of blue threads (פתיל תכלת), does it still require blue tzitzit ?” When Moses answered that it did, Korach again led the laughter of the mob, mocking Moses’ answer (even though it was correct).
It was then that Korach said : “All Israel heard the commandment from God on Sinai: ‘I am the Lord your God!’ If you, Moses, alone had heard it while we had not, you could have claimed superiority to us. However, we all have heard it. The entire community of Israel is therefore holy, and God is within them. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?”
And with that, the People began to murmur against Moses.
Korach’s words and manner of speaking were sweet as honey. The “proof” is that in gematria , Korach’s name equals 308, the same numerical value as the Hebrew phrase בדבש- “in honey,” used to describe the sweetness of manna that sustained the Israelites in the Wilderness during the 40 years of wandering (Ex. 16:31).
During a class discussion on Korach and his arguments, a rabbi was listening to the various comments describing Korach’s arrogance, cunning and selfishness and then told his students to be careful about judging Korach too harshly. He had recently dreamt that he had been present during Korach’s uprising, listening to Korach’s claims against Moses and found that Korach’s claims were more convincing than anything Moses said in retort!
Korach’s “muscle” were two Israelites named Dathan and Aviram who already had a long and brutal history with Moses.
According to the Midrash , they were the ones who had forced Moses to flee from Egypt when they informed Pharaoh that Moses killed the Egyptian overseer (Ex. 2:13–15). They were the ones who had accused Moses and Aaron of making the Israelite situation worse by their demanding Pharaoh to free his Jewish slaves from bondage (Ex. 5:20–21). And they were the same ones who had unsuccessfully searched for manna on Shabbat, contrary to God’s command (Ex. 16:27).
The Torah describes the earth swallowing up Korach and his disciples, seemingly ending the rebellion as well as the lives of the rebels . Midrash, however, gives a beautiful spin to the narrative. It maintains that to this very day, Korach and his disciples can be heard crying up from below the ground: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars."
There might well be some truth in that, for from Biblical text to Midrash and from oral traditions to Cecil B. DeMille, the spirit of Korach and his disciples, though physically swallowed up by the earth, still walks among us today. Korach continues to live and endure in the guise of too many politicians, public figures and leaders, who speak sweet words, mouth empty platitudes and have anything but the good of the people in their hearts.
Interested in learning more about rabbinic interpretations of Torah and every day experiences? Join Rabbi Lipson this summer by registering for his July Melton & More July entitled Chutzpah & Wisdom with a Twist
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