D’var torah on Parashah Korach

Andy Oram
15 June 2002

The book of Numbers is sort of the opposite of those Holiday-season mass mailings you get each year—those stupid letters where people describe what every member of their families have done in glowing terms. Reading Numbers is more like visiting your crotchety old bubbah and finding out what she thinks of other members in the family. Part of Numbers was written by P, part was written by E, and the part we read today was written by a crotchety old bubbah.

Among the many, many rebellions described in Numbers, I’ve discovered that the story of the rebellion of Korach troubles modern readers the most. And the reason it bothers them is that Korach reminds them of all the adolescents in their lives. This type of adolescent rebellion, we feel, doesn’t merit having the earth swallow you up.

So when I approached my d’var torah, at first I thought I would open up discussion and let us all explore our feelings about the story. And then I realized—that’s what Korach would have done! With a big show of democracy, he would have opened the floor to everybody, and we would have gotten nowhere. We’d just get stuck on the adolescent rebellion issue, or if not that, on the odd little statement from Pirke Avot that says the argument of Korach and his congregation was not an argument for the sake of heaven.

So I decided instead to act like a leader. I decided to investigate the portion of Korach myself and find an interpretation that modern readers can accept. And I believe I have done that. If I can explain to you today how I feel about Korach, I think you will come to terms with the portion.

This weekly portion is actually nicely integrated; to understand the rebellions of Korach you have to read the whole portion. It actually covers two rebellions that take place in quick succession. Right after the earth swallows Korach and his followers, the very next day, the whole congregation of Israel—kol-adat b’nei-yisrael—gathers against Moses and Aaron. The congregation is mad that so many people died, and blame Moses and Aaron for it.

So the portion of Korach consists of two stories, which share some of the same people and some of the same themes, but also have key differences—sort of like Wuthering Heights. If we look at what the two stories share and how they critically differ, we can interpret the portion.

Here are the bare outlines of the stories. In the first, Korach, and Datan and Aviram, and 250 other leaders (at least two different stories were probably combined by the redactor) challenge Moses and Aaron. They are swallowed by the earth, a punishment that has the merit at least of originality. You see, after more than two thousand years of ruling the world, God does not have a very large toolbox of ways to handle rebellions. In the second story, where the whole congregation, the whole Edah, rebels, they suffer the more conventional punishment of a plague.

Each story also contains a contest. You know already of some contests in the Bible—for instance, the one where Moses and the Pharoah’s magicians throw down their sticks and turn them into snakes. Another famous contest is where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to call down fire on their sacrifices. There aren’t very many contests like these in the Bible, but here in the portion of Korach there are two, one in each story.

The first contest revolves around pans of incense, which just happens to be among the religious objects that Korach’s branch of the Levites is responsible for carrying. Moses tells Aaron to take a pan, and Korach and his followers to take pans, and to see whom God favors. Korach, of course, loses out big. The use of pans in this way strikes me as very inappropriate. It’s turning a ritual object not only into a kind of game piece, but into a punishment—because those that lose the contest either get swallowed up by the earth or consumed by fire. The choice of ritual objects becomes even more bizarre because when Korach’s followers are swallowed up, for some strange reason they leave their pans behind. Now God has to tell Aaron to do something to preserve and commemorate those pans, which I imagine will become an object of horror to Israelites from then on.

In the second story’s contest, Aaron brings his staff to the tent, and the other eleven leaders of Israel’s tribes bring their staves. Aaron’s staff sprouts buds, blossoms, and even almonds. This must have been an incredibly powerful image to a people living in a desert—and an incredibly positive one. Imagine that you’ve seen nothing around you but rocks for years, and suddenly you see blossoms and almonds. This is a very healing image, and an image of hope.

The third point of contact between the two stories is the pans of incense, which as I said in the first story played a very negative role. They reappear in the second story, but here they play a healing role. Aaron takes his pan of incense among the people—the people who were threatening him just a moment ago—and does expiation for them to turn away the plague. Now the ritual object has been restored to its proper role: one of salvation.

To put all this together, I believe that God realized, and Moses and Aaron realized, that they had made a big mistake with Korach. Just as we believe today, they believed they had overreacted. They thought that by destroying Korach and his followers they would quell the rebellion, but instead it got worse. This second rebellion gave them a chance to try again and react in a more constructive manner. And they did so. They provided the healing image of the flowers and almonds, they restored the ritual incense pan to its proper role, and they made Aaron look like a good guy.

To seal this d’var torah, I will end with a little story from Legends of the Jews. When the earth swallowed up Korach and his followers, they sank down to Sheol. Later, when God destroyed the first Temple, the gates of the temple also sank down into the earth and came to rest next to Korach and his followers, who became the guardians of the gates. When God rebuilds the temple, the gates will rise to Earth again, and Korach and his followers will rise with them. Then they will be forgiven. This is the positive image I’d like to leave you with.


Many are curious about the Pirke Avot statement (Mishnah 5:19) concerning Korach (that the argument of Korah and his congregation was not for the sake of Heaven). A traditional rabbinic explanation of the fits well with a study of this portion.

It is important to look at the precise wording of the statement. It refers not to Korach alone, but to Korach and his “congregation” or “community” (edah). This term edah, which I mentioned in the preceding d’var torah, appears frequently throughout the portion Korach and clearly forms one of its keywords for literary analysis.

In some parts of the portion, the edah refers just to the people who have joined Korach in his rebellion; in other parts it refers to the whole people Israel (or at least the adult males). This confusion is not hard to understand in an age before helicopters could hover above a crowd and police could pick out who is demonstrating, who is merely a by-stander, etc. In the Pirke Avot statement, the edah are those who joined Korach in arguing against Moses and Aaron.

As mentioned in the d’var torah, two or three groups (Korah with his family, Datan and Aviram with theirs, and 250 leaders chosen by the whole people) joined together to oppose Moses and Aaron. It is extremely hard to tell what the real gripe of each group was, but they clearly had different goals and motives. They had nothing positive to put forward in opposition to Moses and Aaron. They knew what they were agaisnt, but not what they were for. In the parlance of modern leftist groups, they formed a “rotten block.”

The ancient rabbis recognized this and pointed out that if Korah and his followers had won, they would immediately have fallen out and started arguing among themselves. That is why their argument is not for the sake of heaven.

More Biblical commentaries

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.