By Rabbah Arlene Berger
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Korach, Numbers 16:1 – 18:32.
In Numbers 16, we meet Korach, a Levite, a cousin of Moses and Aaron. Korach is jealous of Moses’ status as leader of b’nai Israel and feels that, as a Levite, he has just as much right to be the leader as Moses does. He decides to rectify the situation by gathering followers and fomenting a rebellion to overthrow Moses.
Sforno (16th century, Italy) noted that Korach chose a precise time to confront Moses — when the Israelites would be gathered to have their complaints adjudicated. Thus, there was a sizable audience to witness Korach’s insurrection, ideally be convinced of the legitimacy of Korach’s complaints and spread the word throughout the camp.
Once the stage was set, Korach, in the presence of his 250 followers, told Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Numbers 16:3]. This statement was brilliantly constructed, designed to convince those who heard it that they were the equals of Moses and Aaron. Several medieval commentators, including Rashi (12th-century France), Ibn Ezra (11th/12th-century Spain), parse the verse similarly:
“You have gone too far” means that Moses and Aaron have taken too much power for themselves. “For all the community are holy” reminds the Israelites that they all became holy as they stood at Sinai and heard God’s words. “Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” reproaches Moses for not only making his brother Aaron the high priest but also placing himself in a role above Aaron.
By constructing his statement as he did, Korach crafted a rebellion that didn’t actually dispute Moses’ leadership, as he recognized that all nations need a ruler. He challenges Moses as the leader. If they are all holy, then Moses was no more worthy to be that leader than anyone else. Ultimately, he was also challenging the priesthood, claiming that responsibility of performing service in the tabernacle was the duty of the firstborn of each family. Thus, there was no need to elevate Aaron to the role of high priest and pass on the role of the priests to his sons and descendants, assigning his sons the role of the only kohanim.
It is impressive that someone as consumed by jealousy and desire for power as Korach was could plan such a rebellion. Korah speaks this one verse and then steps back and lets others do the talking for him.
One of the best things about being a rabbi is that I am privileged to work with young people as they prepare for their b’nai mitzvah. I am even more fortunate to learn from my students. One of my students has been learning Parshat Korach. She noted that by rebelling against Moses, Korach didn’t realize that he was actually rebelling against God. For it was God who chose Moses as leader and Aaron for the priesthood. Additionally, the punishment that God meted out to Korach and his followers fit the crime. The man who was swallowed by jealousy is ultimately swallowed by earth for his actions.
Working with b’nai mitzvah students, the leadership of the next generation, is always a learning experience. A real young leader recognizes that to be a good leader, your motivations should not come from a place of envy. They should come from the desire to be a role model of characteristics such as humility and respect, not a sense of entitlement.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation in Warrenton and Hevrat Shalom of Rockville.