In the first smear campaign recorded in the Bible, Korach and his supporters painted Moses as a corrupt politician who succumbed to the ageless seduction of power, appointing his brother Aaron as High Priest in a blatant act of nepotism.

Traditionally, the story of Korach has been read as a story of revolt motivated by a power struggle and vices like greed and status-seeking.

In a talk given in 1973,1 the Lubavitcher Rebbe recasts Korach and his posse by drawing attention to a glaring absurdity at the heart of the story.

As a way of proving that Aaron was chosen by G‑d and not himself, and that Korach and his men were unworthy of the priesthood, Moses called his dissenters to a public duel of sorts.

In the morning, G‑d will make known the one who is His own and the holy one, and He will draw him close to Himself . . . Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans—Korach and [your] entire assembly—and put fire in them and place incense upon them before G‑d tomorrow. Then the man who G‑d will choose—he is the holy one.2

The choice of fire-pans and incense was chillingly appropriate, as it recalled the lofty service performed exclusively by the high priest on Yom Kippur, as well as the death penalty that awaited any stranger who engaged in this forbidden rite.

And here we come to the elephant in the room, the obvious question mark hanging from the neck of this narrative.

A unique feature of this uprising—in contrast with the constant defiance of the Israelites throughout their desert trek—was that this rebellion was instigated, not by riffraff (think Dathan and Abiram, Biblical rabble-rousers), but by nobility; Korach was the great-grandson of Levi, and had gained the support of Israel’s finest—“two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, those summoned for meeting, men of renown.”3

These were, to quote Rashi,4 “wise men,” who knew well the severe penalty for offering incense illicitly. Any doubts regarding the seriousness of this transgression and its sentence would have been dispelled by the recent deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, when they violated precisely this law.

As such, accepting Moses’ do-or-die challenge was nothing short of suicidal.

What could possibly have motivated these men to willingly perform a ritual that would cost them their lives?

Shared Passion

The Midrash5 provides insight into the thought process and motivation of Korach’s supporters, from a conversation between them and Moses.

Moses: “We have one G‑d and one high priest, and you all would like to be that high priest. Know, then, that I too desire the same.”

Far from just an attempt to establish rapport and common ground with these men as a mediation ploy, Moses, known for his unequivocal commitment to truth, genuinely meant these words.

Essentially, he was condoning their desire, but not its realization.

But how can that be? How could Moses desire a role that by divine design was already filled?

Risky Business

One of the saddest periods in Jewish history occurred during the time of the Second Temple. One of the unfortunate tragedies of the time was the process by which new high priests were installed.

That elevated position, which for so long had been occupied by the saintliest of men, was now being auctioned off to the highest bidder like a piece of property.

The business of buying the high priesthood, however, was extremely risky, and in many cases proved fatal. According to the Talmud,6 hundreds of these depraved career opportunists “didn’t live out the year.” Having entered such a sacred space as the Holy of Holies at so hallowed a time as Yom Kippur without spiritual virtue or merit, they didn’t stand a chance. By the day’s end, they had joined the ranks of their decadent predecessors and had to be pulled out of the room which once had housed the Holy Ark, lifeless.

Here, too, we wonder about the thought process of these mega-wealthy Jews who knew with certainty, based on hard statistics, that an unworthy high priest was a marked man, and yet were willing not just to die, but to pay exorbitant amounts of money to achieve that end!

A Spiritual Suicide Mission

Have you ever felt the need to pursue an experience, person or truth to the point of extreme sacrifice? Have you ever been so moved or inspired by an idea that you were willing to trade in your current life for another one in an effort to realize your inspiration? Did you ever want something so badly that in its pursuit you were willing to put your career, your relationships, and even your very life in danger?

Well, that was the kind of urgency and reckless devotion that drove both the rebellion of Korach in his day, and the high priest market in its time. What was being sought was the opportunity to engage the divine in the most profound way possible known to man. The most sacred space, the most sacred point in time and the most sacred human being converged through the offering of incense on Yom Kippur to produce a communion between Creator and creation that was one of a kind. Imagine, for a moment, being able to know, see and experience G‑d as you do physical reality.

It was this compelling aspiration that drove our Biblical- and Temple-era men to engage in what could only be called a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Seeing an opening for divine intimacy, these holy men made a run for it, irrespective of the consequences.

What begins, then, as a story that smacks of politics as usual, emerges as a story of religious passion.

What’s In It for Me?

I believe that the marketing of Judaism to unaffiliated Jews should invoke the pursuit for truth and integrity, in addition to the more common promotion of its comforts of belonging and community and the benefits of its culture and values.

Words like “covenant,” “communion,” and “calling” should take their proper place at the table of modern Jewish discourse instead of being relegated to antiquated texts.

When religion becomes a comfort zone as opposed to a point of departure for true spiritual seeking, its leaders and instructors have failed to communicate its essence.

Judaism is sold short when it is presented only as a humanitarian program and code of ethics, and the Torah as no more than a good self-help book.

Judaism is also, if not primarily, a spiritual path to G‑d and a curriculum of self-refinement for the person, and a program for the elevation of spirit over matter in the world.

Something positive we can learn from the passion of the men in the story told earlier—even as we recognize that in Judaism the expression of passion must be guided by G‑d’s law, which is where these men fell short—is to be willing to seek the truth regardless of its cost in the conveniences and comforts of material life.

For, in the words of one proverb, “He who has nothing to die for has nothing worth living for.”