Parashat Korach conflates two separate rebellions under the eponymous name of its central character. One is that of the Levites led by Korach, himself a Levite, against the priestly privileges of Aaron; the second rebellion is led by Dathan and Abiram, the Reubenites, who challenge the political leadership of Moses. Korach also challenges the theological power of Moses: “You take too much upon you….” (Num. 16: 3), meaning you endow your leadership with too much power.
Two punishments are meted out by God to the two rebellious groups. Korach and his 250 chieftains and leaders are destroyed by fire at the trial of fire-pans in the sanctuary. Dathan and Abiram and their followers are swallowed up at the entrances to their tents by the gaping mouth of the earth, which closes on them, burying them alive.
It is redundant to say that traditional Jewish sources condemn the rebels and their actions. As Torah continuously affirms, the religious and secular authority of Moses is given by God, and it is also God’s choice to appoint Aaron and his descendants as the people’s sacerdotal agents.
Of the two rebellions, the offence of Dathan and Abiram is more direct and thus easier to explain. They think that not only has Moses not made good on his promises, but his leadership is too authoritarian. They are demagogues and their approach is arrogant. Their refusal to even see Moses face to face is clearly intended to humiliate Moses in the eyes of the congregation. Their sarcastic statement calling Egypt – the land of their slavery – “the land flowing with milk and honey” is a clear attempt to subvert Moses’s claim to be leading the community to “the land flowing with milk and honey”.
Korach’s rebellion is different. Korach is dissatisfied by what seems to him to be abuse of power by Moses as political and religious leader combined, and the nepotism shown towards his brother Aaron. Korach maintains that as the entire community of Israelites was present at the theophany at Sinai, the entire community is holy; as God says: “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Furthermore, if all the community is a “kingdom of priests”, why the extreme emphasis on Aaron as high priest, and on praxis?
If we analyse Korach’s objections rather than his intentions, as an allegory of the inalienable right of a free people to challenge what seems to them to be abuse of power, it begs the question: did Korach think he was speaking truth to power? Or did he know he was arrogant but deluded himself about his true intentions?
Traditional sources tend towards the latter. However, whilst we accept Torah and Talmud as a matter of faith, is it possible to wonder whether Korach was also remembering the despotic powers of the Pharaoh justified by his high priest, who was chosen by the Pharaoh. The Book of Numbers is a book of rebellions. Can we see these rebellions as metaphors for understanding the meaning of “freedom” and the difference between power and authority? Perhaps there is also a universal message in the parashah: freedom means our immutable right to question our leaders, but first we must question ourselves!
Mehri Niknam MBE is Executive Director of the Joseph Interfaith Foundation and a member of New North London Synagogue