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Judaism: In Defence of Korach

Korach asked good questions, so what was wrong? And what was the main sin of his henchmen?
Published: Thursday, June 06, 2013 10:02 AM


History hasn't a good word to say for Korach. So much so that he is one of the company of Biblical villains whose name has never been given to a Jewish child. We have Abrahams, Isaacs and Jacobs. I have even known an Esau. But have you ever heard of a child called Korach? That’s the proof of how little we love him.

But when you actually look at the statements that aroused Moses’ ire, they seem to have a logic about them. Maybe Korach wasn’t so wrong after all, you begin to think. What was his argument? If you want details of the confrontation, see the Midrash and Rashi.

Korach reasoned like this: If a Jew needs a thread of blue in his tzitzit (it’s a matter of debate whether the thread of blue is a practical possibility today), what about a tallit which is completely made of blue?

He asked a second question: since a Jew needs a m’zuzah with Torah passages on the doorpost, what about a person whose whole house is full of Torah books?

What was Korach getting at with these questions? There is an analogy with the wicked son in the Haggadah. Our problem with this son is not his question in itself; the question shows that he really is a clever person. Our problem is with his tone of voice, his hidden agenda.

The wicked son doesn't raise a genuine query in a search for knowledge. He is trying to show off, to provoke for the sake of provoking, to shake the system and structure of the community, to undermine the authority of Moses and Aaron and the respect due to God-appointed leaders.

What is Korach's sin? Not so much what he asks but how he asks. That is why the Torah says that no-one should be like Korach and his company (Num.17:5).


 

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The destruction of Korach, Datan & Aviram, by Gustave Dore, 1865

Korach’s henchmen were Datan, Aviram and On ben Pelet. How On ben Pelet extricated himself from the conspiracy, thanks to the advice of a sensible wife, has been discussed previously (Midrash: She purposely sat in the doorway of their tent combing her hair, and since it is forbidden to see the hair of a married woman, the rebels could not approach the tent to convince him to join them, ed.). 

Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, continued to give Moses a hard time, but apparently his reaction was without rancour. He asked them “to come up”, i.e. to appear before him and discuss the matter. They retorted, “We will not come up!” (Num. 16:12).

Moses felt there was room for negotiation; Datan and Aviram refused to negotiate.

This it was, says the Midrash, that sealed their fate. They sensed that they might give way – at least to some extent – if they sat and spoke with Moses. Fearing that they might end up making a compromise, and considering compromise a sign of weakness, they showed themselves to be mere mischief-makers, unable to contemplate a peaceful solution. As a result, they lost their place in history.

Had they been more amenable, tradition would have praised their common sense. It would have said that everybody makes mistakes, and the mark of a person who is morally strong is the ability to say or at least imply, “I was wrong”.

Overcoming your mistakes takes nerve, courage and humility, but Datan and Aviram were short of all three.