Last week’s portion of Shelah, in which the desert Israelites refused to wage war in the conquest of the Promised Land, portrayed the great rebellion against God—whereras this week’s portion of Korah documents two great rebellions against Moses, the first by Korah and the second by Dathan and Abiram. Let us begin with Korah, the apparent leader of the pack who (you might remember) was called by the Sage Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk “the holy grandfather,” (in Yiddish, die heiliger zeide).
After all, his desire is not for material gain or political power; it is rather for greater religious piety, for the assumption of the mantle of the kehuna-priesthood of Divine service. Next in the anti-Moses lineup are Dathan and Abiram, impudent upstarts who even refuse the opportunity of a personal meeting with Moses to reconcile their differences. “Is it not enough that you took us out from a land flowing with milk and honey [Egypt!] to have us die in the desert? Would you also lord it over us, yes, lord it over us?” (ibid. 12-13). The fact that they refer to Egypt as “a land flowing with milk and honey” demonstrates how very far they are from the vision of a Hebrew homeland, of Jerusalem as the city of world peace.
The one idea which unites all three rebels and their factions is their refusal to settle in the Promised Land of Israel. Dathan and Abiram hankered after the Egyptian “fleshpots.” They were certain that if the Hebrews would only give up the clannish and old-fashioned customs and morality which they received from their ancestral forbears, then they would be accepted as brothers by the Egyptians and could assimilate into the wealthy and forward-looking Egyptian society.
Hence Dathan, Abiram and their cohorts were punished by being devoured by the earth, swallowed up by the very materialism which had overtaken their Abrahamic traditions and teachings (ibid. 33, Ibn Ezra ad loc).
Korah, on the other hand, was the “holy grandfather” who wished to remain close to God in the desert. He was the heir to Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who had brought a “strange fire which God had not commanded” (Lev. 10: 1). According to the Midrash, they were on an even higher spiritual elevation than Moses and Aaron, and so it was they who had been chosen by God to sanctify the Sanctuary when God sent fire from heaven to respond to the spontaneous fire which they had offered in religious ecstasy (Leviticus Raba 12:2 cited by Rashi, Lev. 10:3).
Korah, wanted to retain the rarefied and ethereal kollel atmosphere of the desert, where manna came down from heaven and where their travels were directed by God Himself.
Hence the Ibn Ezra maintains that Korah’s end was similar to that of Nadab and Abihu, The “holy grandfather” was consumed by a “fire sent forth by the Lord which devoured the two hundred fifty men who offered the [fiery] incense” (Num. 16:35 and see Ibn Ezra to Num. 16:33). Korah, too, was against the conquest of Israel, but for spiritual rather than materialistic reasons: The holy grandfather did not wish to leave the close relationship to God enjoyed by the Hebrews in the desert. He was loath to dirty his hands and besmirch his soul by working the land and entering the world of political machinations necessary to develop a nation-state. And since the actions of the biblical personalities presage the deeds of their descendants, Korah’s attitudes are extremely close to those of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) today vis-a-vis the army and Torah study.
Despite his worthy motivation, Korah was a sinner who did not heed God’s command for the conquest of Israel. God willed us to engage with His world, to work and develop that world, to perfect it and to preserve it (Gen. 2:15). God elected Abraham as the patriarch of His covenantal and eternal nation so that His treasured people would being “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3); and the reason that God chose Abraham was because “he was instructing his children and his household after him to observe the pathway of the Lord to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Gen. 18:19). If Israel is indeed to be a source of blessing to all the nations on earth, it is necessary for Israel to be a nation like all other nations, to be a mighty and successful nation as well as a model ethical nation committed to peace without and within.
Immediately before the Revelation at Sinai, we are reminded that the entire world is God’s. He is invested in the world and so must we be. Indeed, Seforno insists that “our being God’s treasured people” (Ex. 19:5) reflects our mission as a kingdom of kohanim-teachers to understand and to teach all of humankind to call out in the name of the Lord so that we may serve Him, shoulder to shoulder.” We dare not retreat from the world or from history; we must destroy Amalek and enthrone God. We must be a powerful and exemplary nation-state fulfilling our Zionist mission to be God’s witnesses and a light until the nations from our homeland in Zion.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel