This week’s Torah portion is Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32.
In this week’s Torah reading, Korach and his followers rebel against Moses. We know from the start that our hero, Moses, has to be in the right, and God backs him up, as the earth swallows up Korach’s people and all their possessions.
The rabbis fill in the missing background, painting Korach as a demagogue who was only out for himself. The Mishnah teaches that Korach’s controversy was the epitome of a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven.
But Israel was a nation born in the Exodus rebellion against Egypt. And America is a nation born in a revolution against England. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”
Can some rebellions actually be good?
On the face of it, Korach and his followers made some arguments that sound good. They argued that “all the community are holy” and that Moses and Aaron were acting like royalty. That first argument agrees with what God told the Israelites at Sinai — that they would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
And pushing back against leaders with autocratic tendencies sounds, well, positively American. So what was wrong with what Korach and his followers said?
The rabbis supplied one answer: Korach had self-serving motives. Reading the midrash, the Israeli scholar Nehama Leibowitz wrote: “Korach’s ranting contains the familiar rabble-rousing ingredients of demagogy.”
Leibowitz noted: “Like any demagogue, Korach stresses the obligations rather than the privileges.” And she concluded: “Korach’s speech does not lack the familiar stock-in-trade of the demagogue, the weapon of personal abuse. Aspersions are cast on the legislator bringing the law or its executor into disrepute.”
But as Professor Mira Morgenstern writes: “A flawed advocate is not the same thing as a bad case.” Morgenstern argues that “the very fact that the Hebrew Bible devotes some of its laconic text to Korach’s pronouncements suggests that it (implicitly, at least) gives a certain amount of credence to some of his general points.” And in Deuteronomy 17:14–20, the Torah sounds a bit like Korach, enjoining leaders not to put themselves above the people.
According to Morgenstern, the problem was not Korach’s argument, but whom he attacked: “his argument does not hold in the specific cases of Moses and Aaron, whose leadership Korach challenges.”
In The Interpreter’s Bible, Albert George Butzer wrote that the problem with the rebellion of Korach and his followers was that “their timing was wrong.” Butzer observed: “Though it is true, as has been said, ‘There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come,’ we dare not forget that . . . There is an equally destructive power in an idea whose time has not come.”
Butzer noted that later in the book of Numbers, the Torah reports: “Notwithstanding, the sons of Korach did not die.” Thus, while Korach’s arguments failed in this week’s Torah reading, they prevailed in later Torah readings like Deuteronomy 17. Wrote Butzer: “In one generation after another, Korachs have been swallowed up only to rise again in a later generation.
Such are the strange ways of history and the paradoxical workings of God. They should cause us to refrain from a wholesale condemnation of Korach in his generation and incline us to a more tolerant understanding of the sons of Korach in in ours.”
Echoing Jefferson’s endorsement of “a little rebellion now and then,” Butzer welcomed Korach’s influence, asking: “And would it not be a sorry day for mankind on this earth if all the sons of Korach did die out?”
Bill Dauster teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn in Washington program.