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Korach’s Rebellion – Not a Well-known Bible Story

A story is told about three synagogues that are located on a street in a contemporary, mid-sized city—an Orthodox schul, a Conservative Temple, and a Reform congregation. For a variety of reasons, all three become infested with mice.

The question of how best to handle this rodent problem is taken up by the rabbis and administrators of each congregation.

The Orthodox leadership makes a quick decision and calls in an exterminator, who sets out bait and traps; by the end of the week, all of the mice are eliminated.

The clergy and leaders of the Conservative congregation decide to do the most “humane” thing. They call in a company that’s known to be both “green” and politically correct, who lay out devices that attract the mice and capture them live. The rodents are then moved to an empty field several blocks away, where they are left with a supply of food. Undaunted and perhaps encouraged by this humane treatment, the mice soon return and re-infest the Conservative Temple.

At the Reform Temple, they ponder the problem, and after much discussion decide to make all of the mice members of the congregation. After many years, the mice still only visit the temple twice a year.

(By the way, I’ve been informed that a similar story is often told by the clergy of a wide variety of denominations.)

I’d like to discuss Korach and his rebellion, see what the Talmud can add to our understanding of the story, and question why the average person knows so little about this seminal biblical character.

Along with the mice who come to religious services twice a year, your average synagogue or church attendee may never have heard of Korach in spite of the fact that rabbinic scholar Gunther Plaut calls this story “The most serious rebellion that faced Moses and Aaron during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness;” and “…a narrative that has assumed great importance in [biblical] literature. “

I believe that the story of Moses, the Exodus, the Plagues, and the parting of the Sea are almost universally know. Also well-known are the animal-centric bible stories that include Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Jonah and the Whale. (And let’s not forget the stories of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Fiddler on the Roof!)

The telling of the binding of Isaac is central to Judaism and is retold every year at High Holidays, when many Jews (and some mice) attend services.

But the story of Korach? I don’t think so.

Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and On (remember On—I’ll return to him later) along with 250 Israelites—well known men of the community—rebel against Moses and Aaron, telling them, “You have gone too far! For all the Community is holy, and God is within all of us. Why do you lord it over the Assembly of God?”

After initially falling on his face, Moses recovers and takes on the challenge, laying out the rules of the “contest.” He tells the challengers to bring their fire pans and see whom God will choose to lead. But Korach doesn’t stand a chance; he is challenging Moses and Aaron, God’s chosen leaders, and a rebellion against them is, in fact, a rebellion against God.

After the challenge, “The earth opened its mouth wide and swallowed them up …with all their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol. And a fire went forth from God and consumed the 250 men.”

The next day, “the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron,” leading God to begin a plague that killed 14,700 people before it was checked. Later, Aaron’s staff miraculously blossomed and brought forth almonds, confirming that his designation as High Priest was, indeed, Divinely ordained.

Earlier, Moses had attempted to speak to Dathan and Abiram, but they said, “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? …And moreover, you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey… No, we will not come!”

I recently asked a friend if he knew who Korach was, and he said, “Oh, yeah…’Korach the Magnificent’ from the Johnny Carson Show.” My friend was a bit confused.

When presented with an answer, “Carnac the Magnificent” would give you the question. One skit actually involved “Milk and Honey,” and I did not make this up:

Ed McMahon: “O Great Carnac, the answer is ‘Milk and Honey.’ What is the question?”

Carnac: “The question is, ‘What do you get from a bee with an udder?’”

Rabbis of Mishnaic and Talmudic times viewed themselves as direct spiritual descendants of Moses and interpreted the punishment of Korach as a warning to their own contemporaries who challenged the divine sanctity of rabbinic teaching. These rabbis threatened their challengers with eternal damnation. In fact, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva believed that Korach was not only punished in the wilderness, but he was excluded from divine grace for all time to come.

Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum explains that according to rabbinic tradition, Korach possessed amazing wealth. Yet in rebelling against Moses and Aaron, Korach seemingly played the role of the “democrat and the people’s champion.“ Greenbaum says Korach’s rebellion was against the authority of Moses (the rule of law), but Korach justified it with an appeal to people’s highest ideals: “Everyone is holy, so why do we need priests and rabbis?” But what he was really asking was, “Why should only Aaron and his sons be priests? I should be given this honor!”

In one strange Midrash I found, the clever Korach actually baits Moses, asking him if it’s really necessary to attach a mezuzah, which contains writings from the Torah, to a door leading to a room full of Torahs. I wonder myself!

Plaut notes that in spite of the rebellion, Korach’s name was not blotted out, and his family continued to serve with high distinction. The prophet Samuel was his descendant, and Korach’s sons composed at least twelve psalms.

Earlier, I asked you to remember the name On. He is a character whose name appears in the Torah only once, in the opening line of this parashah, and never again.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson writes that the Talmud (Sanhedrin) tells us of two Midrash stories that contrast the wife of Korach and the wife of the mysterious On.

In the first, Korach’s wife goads her husband into revolt: “…Do you see what Moses did? He proclaimed himself as a king and made his brother high-priest… He made a fool of you!”

Sufficiently riled up, Korach then goes on and makes his fatal move against Moses.

On’s wife, on the other hand saves her husband, telling him, “What difference should it make to you who is the leader? If Moses is the master, you are only a disciple, and the same will be true if Korach becomes the master.”

Her husband responds, “(But) what shall I do? (I) swore to take part with them?”

“Remain in our tent and I will save you.”

She gives him wine to drink and he becomes sleepy and intoxicated. Then she sits outside their tent, uncovers her head, and dishevels her hair. When the other dissenters come to his house and see the uncovered head of a woman, they turn away. “And she continues to sit there until the congregation is swallowed.”

The Talmud then reminds us of the Proverb, “The wise… woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her own hands.”

Rabbi Feigelson admits that the Talmud willfully reads with blurry eyes, complicating the boundaries between political and familial tensions, between domestic and communal power.

And each year we again read about Korach in the Torah. And just like the sages and rabbis of antiquity, congregants who meet for Torah or Talmud study still have much to discuss.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe instructs us that Korach was no ordinary rabble-rouser. Rather, he was a leading member of one of the most prestigious Levite families. Yet, the Rebbe says, Korach is regarded as the father of all quarrelers: his very name is synonymous with disharmony and conflict.

The Talmud concurs: “Anyone who engages in divisiveness transgresses a divine prohibition, as it is written: ‘Don’t be like Korach.’”

Can he ever be forgiven? What if Korach admitted his transgression? The Talmud comes to our rescue, telling us that Rabbah bar Bar-Chana, while traveling in the desert, met an Arab merchant who took him to the very place where the earth opened up and Korach and his men died. Bar-Chana walked to a crevice in the earth, and when he listened carefully he could hear the voice of Korach say, “Moses and his Torah are true, and we were liars.”

“Moses was right, and we were wrong.” But Korach says this not in the Torah; his confession is found only in the Talmud.

The average man or woman on the street may never have heard of Korach, his Rebellion, the earth that opened up and swallowed 250, or the plague that killed 14,000 Israelites. And it may never rival or replace the more popular stories from the bible. Yet here we have a story filled with important lessons, chanted every year in the synagogue, and discussed by both Talmudic sages and contemporary scholars. And perhaps a few mice.

Originally delivered as a drash (sermon).

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