This portion is largely oriented to a particular challenge in the wilderness - the matter of a very dangerous demagogue - who he is, how he organizes, what’s his appeal, the case he makes and how he builds his power, the danger he poses, how legitimate leaders can and must resist and oppose him, what his prospects mean to God and the community, and how we must always memorialize and remember his defeat to forever guard against the disease of the demagogue.
I want to focus on three questions: 1) do we still face this danger of such demagogues - big and small - in our lives, 2, aren’t battles of this sort inevitable, as long as there’s opposition to the Divine and a need for the Divine will to prevail, whether in Biblical times or now, and 3) within each of us and in our community, who or what is the Korach, and who or what is the Aaron?
The Bible is not just about its ancient clothing and the people and practices in days of old. God speaks to people in all times, including our own!
I. Read 16:1-3. So much in just three verses!
A. 1. Who’s Korach? What’s he doing, and with whom?
(Korach is a son of a powerful group within a powerful tribe, the Levites. He affiliates himself with the tribe of Reuben? Indeed he “takes up” or “separates” (vayikach) with them. What does all this mean to you
The tribe of Reuben likely has a claim for leadership as the first son, for one thing. Also, recall what Jacob said about Reuben based on his behavior, that he would be as unsettled as water. So, it’s natural that Korach would choose such an ambitious and unstable partner as an ally in rebellion.
The matter of Korach’s “taking up” or “separating from” has been much discussed over the centuries. It’s likely a taking himself aside, as if to rebel, to divide, to be led by his heart by the view that there is no Judge or judging (Midrash), and thus be a usurper. Some say it means he took the men who would be his confederates. Isn’t it likely that it’s all of the above? Ah, the Bible, and the many ways it speaks truth to us!)
2. They rise up against Moses, with 250 chieftains. Why would such a numerous and significant group rise up against Moses, and why now?
(Thoughts in the commentary: 1) An accumulation of discontent at hardship and growing demoralization of people, especially after the decree that they will be in the wilderness for 40 years, with none of the current generation making it to the promised land (Can you imagine any modern day politician surviving such a predicament?!), 2) Alliance of interests that had been hurt by punishment and defeat in previous conflicts with Moses, 3) Prospect of rising to power along with strong contestant in Korach, though each group likely has its own grounds and ambitions for doing so, and 4) Perfect timing to strike, when Moses and Aaron were weak politically.)
B. What’s the basis for the rebels’ attack on Moses and appeal for support? Why does it have some credibility, yet would have been particularly offensive to God?
(It is grounded in the notion that all the community is holy, thus negating the position of Moses and Aaron to lead in the administration of the mitzvoth that utilize a hierarchy of service. This case has some inherent strength in that it is actually based on the God-set goal that the people will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But it conveniently hides and contradicts the Divinely established system of authority as to matters of holiness among leaders and within the community that is essential to building the community toward that goal. This combination makes for quintessential demagoguery, the sort we have seen vividly throughout history, a use of appeal to the masses both on their behalf and to the end of a primary group goal, but truly and mostly to garner power.
Isn’t this appeal powerful, especially during bad times? I could see “populists” from all perspectives, in many times in history, using and succeeding with this approach, can’t you? Korach wants to place himself at the head once he displaces Moses and Aaron through public support on the basis, in part, of his egalitarian appeal.
While we don’t see in Torah much on the the various distorted and dishonest, nasty and destructive means these rebels used to undermine Moses and the true leaders, there are many wild stories in midrashim. It’s amazing that the sages wrote so creatively of this, having no experience whatsoever in the back alleys of today’s social media!
Bottom line as to God’s concern: What’s not in the best interest of heaven, indeed that which opposes the will of heaven and is fundamentally about personal gain, is per se despised by God.
The Zohar puts it right: Korach took an evil counsel for himself. He ran after something that was not his. When one does that, one loses both what he seeks and what he has. He quarreled with peace, thus with God, above and below, and was punished above and below. One who makes the right left and the left right lays waste the world, and thus must be defeated.
II. Read 4-11. What - politically - does Moses achieve by his response to Korach?
(After initial despair, Moses does two very effective things: 1) He puts the matter into God’s hands, for how could Korach fight the idea of placing the decision in God’s hands?, and 2) He exposes the duplicity and hypocrisy of Korach by showing that he was not a “man of the people,” but rather was of a preferred class, and, coming from and benefiting from position, would mostly be about adding power to it.)
III. The contest of the fire pans happens, and, predictably, God is furious with the rebels. Read 20-27; 31-35; 17:1-3.
A. What’s the first thing God commands?
(Separate yourselves from them. Korach takes up to rebel, to separate from the way of God. The people must separate from them. This is obviously to prevent being caught up in the punishment they receive, but, more deeply, it is not to be caught up in the wrongdoing that leads to the punishment.)
B. More verbs! This is a portion of telling verbs. Immediately Moses “gets up and goes to Dathan and Abiram.” Why and for what purpose?
(In an act of compassion, Moses wants to give them one more chance to come back from the wrong path. So, when God says separate from them, the first reaction of Moses, our teacher, is to “get up and go,” to rush to save. This is very important, and further evidence of why God wants us always to pay attention to what Moses does in the narrative.)
C. There is no mercy for the rebel group. Why not
(How can there be, in the face of its outright defiance of God’s way and God’s agents - especially, when it’s done falsely, as if in the name of God and God’s ends? Mercy in this instance would erode, indeed ultimately, lead to the destruction of, God’s plan and its execution. Actions based on resentments, political ambition untied to service to God, discord and division designed to disrupt or destroy organization in service of fulfillment of Divine plans, in effect, heresy - all of this must be curbed and defeated.)
D. When Moses thinks God might destroy the whole people, he pleads on behalf of those who were not directly involved, by making an appeal to God that begins with these words, “God of the spirits.” Why do you think he used that appellation?
(He knows that God knows the souls of all, the spirit within each and their inner thoughts, and he appeals to the One who Knows to separate those whose souls are free of this evil to be saved and separated. God always intended the punishment that was delivered, but it’s important once again to learn from the virtue of our teacher, Moses, in how we respond in moments of crisis in a manner pleasing to God.
E. Explain how and why the fire pans the sinners brought and are now burned become sacred and find their way to being attached to the altar?
(On an elementary level, they were part of an offering, however unacceptable they were. Anything offered to God becomes God’s. Also, they become significant in a trial in which God’s will prevails, so they, though in an odd way, become special. They certainly are a sign, a warning sign to people who see them in the future, with extraordinary ritual power. This urge toward unwarranted but advantageous power, which also masks a challenge to God’s way, is so natural and so dangerous that its defeat by God is sacred. Further, it must be memorialized and made manifest and memorialized at moments of encounter in sacred space, right there on the altar. This sign says to all that those who divide and separate for their own sake and not of heaven have no place in the sacred space or in leadership for God or in service of God.)
IV. We’ll not examine verses 6-15, which tell the story of how, rather unbelievably, the people (apparently as a whole) continue to rail against Moses and Aaron for causing the death of “the Lord’s people.” We can completely understand why the two would fall on their faces at this point! Yet, I’ve been in politics long enough, as have many of you, to know how truly and loudly this resonates. Moses and Aaron do work through an act of expiation to keep the plague God administers from destroying most of the people, which surely is a compassionate and saving gesture on their part.
God responds by favoring Aaron in the beautiful sprouting of his staff among those of the 12 chieftains. This endorsement by God of Aaron is truly significant for the future, but the people continue in 27 to wail and whine. My oh my.
V. Chapter 18 brings this difficult portion to a close. But I find comfort in two elements of the chapter that involve action by, and instructions from, God that add strength to Aaron and ultimately the community in the face of the unusual weakness we have encountered in the people in this part of the text.
A. The early part of the chapter involves God’s speaking directly to Aaron about his role and that of his sons in the operation of sacred space. Much of these verses involve instructions we’ve already studied. Why are they repeated here, and what’s the significance of their being expressed by God to Aaron?
(God appears to be endorsing Aaron. God may be rewarding him and/or making the delegation to him absolutely clear, especially in the face of this last, or any future, challenge.
There’s an explicit, Divine marker that sustaining holiness, in contrast to Korach’s views, requires organization, understanding and following the mitzvoth, and a discrete role for Aaron and his sons. The rebellion and all it represents are repudiated, and the Divine words are here as a perpetual marker for all Korachs in the future to see as well as for all of us to see. However these mitzvoth are incorporated into our lives throughout time, they’re not to be rejected or taken over by a usurper, or for a usurper’s purpose.)
B. Read 18:25-29. Something important is being said here. What do you see?
(Even this special class of Levites owes offerings to God and support of the community’s sacred space. To the extent that the rebellion involved power seeking, this provides an explicit limitation on power. It, also, shows that the levitical class is not favored or especially enriched. The Levites owe and offer, as do the others. And the offerings are to God and to support God. All must give a portion.This nourishes the soul, limits the appetite, levels the ambition or feeling of “being above,” and makes clear that we’re all here to serve God, not ourselves.)
So, to close, let me ask this
question: who or what inside of us or in our community is akin to Korach, and
who or what is akin to Aaron? Do we ever hear the voice of Korach in our lives?
What does it say to us? What sorts of appeals does it make to us? Is there an
Aaron inside of us? What does it stand for? My hypothesis is that this portion
speaks to us mightily through this opposition. Do you agree? Thoughts?