Why did wrath go forth?

Parshat Korach deals with strife. Several works that enumerate the ­mitzvot even list a special negative commandment derived from the Parshah prohibiting strife: “One should not be like Korach and his party”.1 There are several questions relating to the quarrel of Korach and his followers, and I would like to focus on one of them.

This is not the first time that people quarrel with Moses; he had dealt with similar conflicts several times already. They complained about him, argued with him, even tried to throw stones at him. But this case is different. The rebellion here is led by respected people: Korach, Datan and Aviram, and another group of tzaddikim – leaders of Israel, 250 princes of the community. All the leaders of this quarrel are intelligent people, and there is almost no violence. The most extreme thing that happens is that Moses summons them and they do not come. And yet, strangely, Moses’ reaction is much sharper than in other cases.

In the other quarrels, Moses sometimes falls on his face, sometimes pleads for Israel, and once he even utters a curse. But here his response is extraordinarily severe: “Moses became very angry…If these men die the common death of all men…then G‑d has not sent me. But if G‑d creates something entirely new, so that the ground opens its mouth…you shall know that these men have spurned G‑d.”2
Moses wants the earth to swallow them up, which is no ordinary punishment. He wants G‑d to implement a supernatural event for this purpose alone. The spies, too, it would seem, deserved to be swallowed up by the earth, but they died in an ordinary plague. There are other people throughout Tanach, great and small, who were condemned to death by the sword or by strangulation, but this is something else entirely.

This question appears in the literature and is even alluded to in Pirkei Avot, where it says that one of the ten things that were created on the eve of the first Shabbat at twilight is the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers. Moses calls for something that is beyond the natural order to intervene in the dispute and decide it. What exactly is Moses so angry about? What made this dispute different from all the others?

Even my ally

Quite a few answers have been suggested for these questions, the most basic of which is that this is a dispute with a close associate.

It is one thing to be in a dispute or a quarrel and to feel the antagonism of someone who hates you for one reason or another. But when the antagonist is a person who should be one’s ally – that is much worse. King David, who likewise was confronted with such a reality, expresses this feeling: “Even my ally in whom I trusted, who shared my bread, has been exceedingly false to me.”3

So, too, in the case of Moses: The disputes until now have always been with outsiders, and Moses can basically relate to them with equanimity. Korach, however, is not an outsider; he is Moses’ cousin, a relative. When such a dispute comes from within, it is much more painful.

When David faces antagonism from Goliath, it is completely different from his later conflicts with Avshalom and Achitofel. It is a feeling of desperation and realization that one cannot rely on anyone.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses calls out, “Whoever is for G‑d, join me,”4 all the Levites – including Korach – gathered around him; they all rallied to his side. The Levites are not just Moses’ tribe; they are also his loyalists. Just as the emperor has a personal guard whose members have special rights, the Levites act as Moses’ royal guard, whose duties include guarding the Sanctuary. Disloyalty within this guard is much more painful and harmful than disloyalty in any other group, and it is also much harder to pardon.

“That G‑d sent me”

Another unique aspect of this dispute is the nature of the claims put forward by Korach and his followers against Moses, claims that are much more far-reaching than any other claim advanced against him thus far. In the dispute of Korach and his followers, the complaints, for the first time, do not relate to a practical problem but to a fundamental religious question. Korach says, in essence, that Moses is certainly a great man – he does not deny this – but that Moses also adds his own content to G‑d’s will.

This claim can be interpreted as a personal attack against Moses, but the truth is that it extends much further than that. Moses’ argument with these people relates to the way in which G‑d chooses to reveal Himself and communicate with the people. Moses says that he appointed Aaron because G‑d told him to do so. If G‑d had instructed him to appoint the son of Shelomit, daughter of Divri, the blasphemer, he would have done so as well. He is merely G‑d’s instrument and nothing more than that; and since he is an instrument of G‑d, Korach has no right to blame him.

Until now, when people would rebel, they were opposing G‑d and thus also His anointed. People always had complaints – they complained of hunger, of thirst, and of the long and arduous journey – but Moses never appeared as an independent element. G‑d and Moses always went together, already from the outset, after the parting of the Red Sea: “They believed in G‑d and in His servant Moses.”5 Even when, nevertheless, there were complaints against Moses, they were not about him as an individual but about G‑d and His anointed.

Here, however, something new and strange happens. Korach and his party are basically like the original Reform Jews who say that they are for G‑d, for the Torah, and for the Sanctuary, but not for any of the “later additions.” Moses’ supposed “later additions” are what the rebels complain about.

This is a very serious matter, because it relates not only to the people’s perception of Moses’ role as the instrument of G‑d, but also to a time and to a place that are more essential and important. Before the revelation at Mount Sinai, G‑d says to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak with you. And then they will believe in you forever.”6 We rely on Moses not as a secondary source, not as an additional element on account of his being a great and wise man. Faith in Moses as G‑d’s prophet is fundamental to our faith, and it is not for naught that Maimonides establishes this as one of the fundamentals of Jewish faith.

Moses is not only G‑d’s servant; he is G‑d’s emissary in all matters, and the Shechinah speaks from his throat. This is a fundamental truth in our faith. In light of this, Moses responds sharply:

By this you shall know that G‑d sent me to do all these deeds, and that I have not done them of my own mind. If these men die the common death of all men and share the common fate of man, then G‑d has not sent me. But if G‑d creates something entirely new, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you will know that these men have provoked G‑d.7

He sends them to Sheol because they are impinging upon a deep and basic point; they are undermining the foundation of the Torah’s message.

Even the spies – though they claimed that G‑d could not conquer the Land for them and overcome all the difficulties that this would entail – did not undermine the foundation of the Torah’s message. To be sure, they lacked faith in G‑d, but they did not show a lack of faith in Moses as His emissary. If Moses is merely a microphone, there is no reason to quarrel with a microphone, even if it shouts at me. Here, in the case of Korach and his followers, there is an attempt to separate between G‑d and Moses. This alarms Moses, because such a separation undermines the people’s ability to continue receiving the Torah – both regarding the Written Law and the Oral Law. This rebellion must be completely eradicated; these people must be wiped out, without leaving even a remnant. What is left for posterity is only the “reminder to the People of Israel…that [they] not be like Korach and his party.”8

The dispute of Korach and his followers seems like a minor incident, much less serious than other parallel cases. In contrast to what the spies demand – “Let us assign a leader and return to Egypt”9 – all Korach and his followers want is permission to offer incense. Moses could have simply allowed them to do this and then gone back to sleep. But the truth is that this is not just a dispute about appointments. The dispute here touches upon a very deep point. Hence, even though it does not present an immediate threat, it requires more thorough eradication.

In the other quarrels, we see the entire community – “The whole community began to complain”10 – they all begin to yell. When the people cry out for a hot breakfast, there is an immediate solution; Moses can deal with the people who, “like the beasts,”11 cry and yell for meat. This is simply an instance of infantile behavior, not reflective of any deeper problem. In our case, however, those who create the turmoil are making logical arguments regarding basic tenets of our faith. The fact that the ideas were put forth by the elites of the nation makes their actions even more dangerous. The real, difficult dispute is not with people who are not looking to satisfy lusts but, rather, with those who are looking to change and replace the basic principles of our belief system.

All the people in the community are holy

A third related point is that Korach and his followers use Moses’ own words against him.

What do Korach’s followers say? “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the people in the community are holy, and G‑d is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above G‑d’s congregation?”12

In the incident of Eldad and Medad, Moses said almost the same thing to Joshua: “Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets, that G‑d would put His spirit upon them.”13

In essence, Korach and his followers reminded Moses that he wanted people who would be more involved – he wanted prophets. Here were 250 people, all of whom were volunteering to fill these roles. There had been only one High Priest; here were 250 potential High Priests. Their objective was to open to all what until now had been restricted.

In the Jewish people, there is an aristocratic class composed of Torah scholars. This is basically the ruling class: all the appointments and honors go to them. But this class is not an exclusive club. If you want to belong to this class, you are not asked who your father was or whether you have respectable in-laws; anyone can belong to it. In this respect, the crown of Torah is truly accessible to all; whoever wishes to study is invited to do so.

Korach and his followers continue, noting that while they appreciate that the aristocracy of Torah is open to all, there is another class – the class of the priesthood – and that class is closed. The rebels demand that the priesthood be opened to everyone as well, so that anyone who is inspired to become a Priest – or even a High Priest – can do so.

Many generations later, this is indeed what happened. Throughout the book of Kings, we read that “the people still brought sacrifices and burned offerings upon the bamot.”14 According to almost all the commentators, these bamot were dedicated to G‑d, in sanctity and in purity, and not to idolatry. A Jew who was seized with a spirit of holiness would summon his entire family, immerse in a mikvah, don white clothing, and make a whole offering to G‑d. When bamot were permitted, this was certainly considered a mitzvah.

In the time of the Tabernacle and the Temple, however, the bamot were prohibited. In the Temple, an ordinary person is a minor adjunct; he merely buys a ticket. He can bring his offering, and he can even ­perform the ritual of laying one’s hand upon it, but from that point onward it already is not his affair.

There is much to be said, then, for Korach’s demand to open the priesthood class. Underlying a person’s desire to be a Priest, then, is not just a desire for honor but a true desire to express oneself in the realm of holiness. The argument raised by Korach and his followers reflects not simply a desire to break down barriers but a desire for personal involvement. They argue that instead of forming a structure where the Priest does everything and there is no room for individual expression, it is possible to bring in other people as well – Levites and Israelites.

We do not have a complete list of Korach’s followers – according to the Midrash, they even included members of the Sanhedrin15 – but whatever the case may be, we are dealing here with the leaders of Israel, “princes of the community.”16 These distinguished people simply want to serve G‑d as Priests; they, too, want to serve in the inner Sanctuary. This is a legitimate request, a holy and serious matter.

In light of all this, the question is compounded: What fault did Moses find in them? What is more, the dispute of Korach and his followers became the archetype for unworthy disputes throughout our history: “What dispute was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his whole party.”17 This is difficult to understand. After all, they say that their objective is that all the people in the community should be holy. The question of whether to reach out to the whole community or to remain concentrated in a small, limited circle is a dispute that continues for many generations and is a real, important question. Why, then, is this considered a dispute that is not for sake of Heaven?

Behind the slogans

The dialogue between Moses and Korach’s party is odd. On the surface, it appears as though Moses’ responses do not relate to their claims. They claim that they want to participate in the Order of Service, and Moses replies, “Is it but a small thing to you that the G‑d of Israel has set you apart?”18 They accuse him of deceiving them, not fulfilling his promise to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and Moses replies, “I did not take a single donkey.”19 What does Moses mean by this?

The implication is that Moses simply does not believe that these people are acting for the sake of Heaven. Here he expresses his view of the dispute – that it is dishonest; behind its stated claims lurk other motives.

Korach and his followers use slogans implying that their motives are for the sake of Heaven, but there is reason to believe that this is not the case. The Midrash says that behind Korach’s claims lies his desire to be the head of the Kehatite family.20 When the appointments were made, he was passed over, a snub that made him angry, envious, and frustrated. Korach was smart, wealthy, and probably a great man as well; he was able to convince everyone that his motives were pure and holy. In truth, however, according to the Midrash, behind the façade of this great man lurked a personal grudge.

Datan and Aviram, of whom we know nothing other than what we read here, also seemingly wanted to receive something but did not get it. They cried out as though an injustice had been done to them, while nothing actually happened other than that they could not tolerate Moses, simply because he was greater and wiser than they were. This is a case of envy and resentment, hidden behind the rhetoric.

One can learn a lot from this about disputes that are seemingly for the sake of Heaven. People often use slogans of holiness, but what lies behind these slogans is often nothing but personal pettiness. Even when all slogans are for the good of the party, or for the good of the world, one should still search for what lies beneath them, below the surface. Sometimes one finds there a small, frustrated person who wanted to receive something and did not get it. He is envious of someone else and cannot do anything about it, and so he tries to attack him in some other way.

Recently, it has been said that there is a remedy for every form of hatred except for hatred that results from envy. For hatred caused by envy, gracious gestures by the other side will never help, because the source of the hatred is not an act of injustice, but a deep-seated feeling of jealousy.

In saying, “I have not taken a single donkey, nor have I harmed a single one of them”21 Moses is emphasizing that the dispute did not start on the basis of an injustice. In general, if one causes someone to suffer, even justifiably, it is understandable that this could lead to the development of a grudge. But in the dispute with Korach and his followers, no such suffering was caused, no offense was given; the whole incident was a direct result of envy.

There is no remedy for such hatred, and because of this, Moses needed to eradicate them completely.