By Rabbi Louis Jacobs
A 19th century Hasidic Rebbe claimed that he recalled Korach’s rebellion against Moses from a previous incarnation. His followers asked him whose side he was on, and the Rebbe replied that he was neutral; Korach’s arguments were so persuasive that he found it difficult to stand with Moses.
We can sympathize with the Rebbe. Viewed superficially Korach was a democrat, an upholder of the rights of man. He vehemently objected to Moses’ assumption of leadership and his claim to be superior to the people of God: ‘All the congregation are holy, why do you raise yourself against them?’
Everyone today is convinced of the value of democracy. We therefore tend to see Korach as a champion of popular rule. Subconsciously, at least, we admire his courage and sympathize with his views. Experienced readers of the Bible, aware of the complexities of human nature, understand that the biblical heroes, for all their greatness, were creatures of flesh and blood; in this lies their greatness. They had their faults, often serious faults. Concurrently, the ‘villains’ of the Bible also experienced occasional flashes of benevolence and good sense. We must, as readers, seek to understand why some characters are praised, in spite of all their faults, while others are denigrated, for all their virtues. The story of Korach demands such an approach. The question we must ask is, why does Scripture ultimately condemn Korach?
It is a mistake to believe that Korach demanded equality for all, while Moses favoured aristocracy and elitism. Moses also desired that his followers should be great. When Eldad and Medad prophesized in the camp, Moses replied to Joshua’s implication that this was an insult to him, ‘Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets that the Lord would put His spirit upon them’ (Num. 11: 25-9).
We might say that Moses desired equal spiritual equality for all, whereas Korach believed that the Israelites already possessed all the greatness they needed, an idea that would bear disastrous implications. Korach was not a democrat; he was a demagogue, holding out to the people aims they could never realize. We should not forget that, in the whole narrative, Moses does not seek anything for himself other than to follow God’s word. He might even have preferred Korach to be the leader, but God had decided otherwise. The Korach narrative demonstrates that it is God, rather than Moses, who leads the people.
Another Hasidic master, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Izbica, grandfather of the Rebbe referred to at the beginning of the essay, brings forward another, daring idea. He suggests that if Korach was no more than an ambitious rebel against authority, the Torah would have ignored him and certainly would not have devoted so much space to him. From the absolute standpoint, Korach was right that all God’s people are holy; but this holy truth will be revealed only in the Messianic age. Korach’s error was to anticipate this glorious future. He was guilty of realized eschatology.
This is the terrible but magnificent temptation of the religious idealist, to believe that all that needs to be achieved in human history will be achieved at once if only people will listen to him. Moses was right that there can be no anticipation of the Messianic age before God decrees that human history will find its fulfilment. When that age comes Korach will be seen to have been vindicated.
Adapted from a dvar Torah by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, in Jewish Preaching: Homilies and Sermons (2004), pp. 148-50.