What Is fair?

Adapting the Torah to what is accepted as fair by the surrounding world is a direct rejection of its Divine objectivity.

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Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The name Korach naturally conjures up images of holes in the ground and consuming fires. His name is synonymous with a failed rebellion, challenging the Divine authority. His story is well known, laid out in immense detail in the Torah section bearing his name. The Talmud, though, uses Korach’s name, and his overall genealogy, to demonstrate the true nature of his sin and its terrible effects on the Jewish people. 
The first verses of the Torah portion lay out the primary participants in the rebellion (Bamidbar 16:1):

“Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.” 

The specific pedigree grabs the attention of the Sages (Sanhedrin 109b):

“Now Korah took . . . Resh Lakish said: He took a bad bargain for himself, He made a bald patch among Israel. The son of Izhar: a son who incensed the whole world with himself as the [heat of] noon. The son of Kohath, a son who set the teeth of his progenitors on edge. The son of Levi: a son who became an inmate of Gehenna. Then why not state too ‘the son of Jacob’, [implying] a son who marched himself into Gehenna? — R. Samuel b. R. Isaac answered: Jacob supplicated for himself [not to be enumerated amongst Korah's ancestors]…”

As we can see, the Talmud derives various seemingly scattered interpretations based on each name in Korach’s family line. It even suggests one for “son of Jacob”, only to reject it due to an interpretation concerning Yaakov’s wishes. When it comes to the other instigators, the Talmud continues (ibid):

“Dathan [denotes] that he violated God's law; Abiram — that he stoutly refused to repent; On — that he sat in lamentations; Peleth — that wonders were wrought for him; the son of Reuben — a son who saw and understood” 

Once again, we see similar types of derivations from the above listed names. In organizing these interpretations, there is a distinct difference between Korach and his followers. With Korach, whatever the Talmud is attempting to teach us, the ideas are unique to the particular sin committed. With Datan and Aviram, more general language is used, such as “he violated God’s law”. There is also the mystery of On, who has a brief cameo at the onset of the rebellion. The Maharsha explains that the Talmud is teaching us that On was sucked into Korach’s plan.

However, after thinking about it, he decided the entire enterprise was a mistake, and he proceeded to repent.

What ideas are the Talmud trying to present to us? The descriptions ascribed to Korach are cryptic at best; yet, as with all Aggadic statements, there is a deeper idea we can access. It would appear that the Talmud, as mentioned above, is focused on the precise sin committed by Korach. As we see clearly from the beginning of the Torah portion, Korach sought to reform Judaism, transforming it into a more egalitarian version of religion.

The idea of a religion preaching equality has a tremendous amount of emotional appeal. We are all the nation of God, and as Korach says quite eloquently, “the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst”. The idea of religious hierarchy, especially in modern Western culture, implies superiority and supremacy.

Judaism, though, never makes a claim of equality. True, every Jew is obligated in the Torah equally. And without question, every Jew has access to the infinite wisdom of the Torah. At the same time, there are clearly delineated strata, whether it be the Kohanim and Leviin, or the talmid chacham (sage). Does this mean an intrinsic superiority? No, we are all human beings, each possessing our own ability to access God.

However, God designated certain individuals with specific roles that others do not have. While this may run counter to our subjective, albeit juvenile sense of “fairness”, the Torah is Divine, and we must focus on the wisdom behind such a decision rather than fall prey to our misguided fantasy of equality. 

The emotion of egalitarianism is a very strong one, and as we see from the Korach rebellion, it captured the hearts and minds of much of the Jewish populace. In many ways, Korach awakened this emotion, and its effect was profound. Thus, Korach is described as a “bald patch”, due to the mark he left on the ground (with the subsequent swallowing by the earth). In a broader sense, Korach’s actions left a permanent imprint on the nation as a whole.

The idea of an egalitarian revolt would always be associated with Korach.  He “incensed the whole world”, referring to the deep and everlasting impact of bringing forth this dangerous concept. Korach “set the teeth of his progenitors on edge”. He was from the line of Levi, which meant he had a responsibility to bring the Jewish people to a higher level of perfection. Instead, Korach rejected that role and led them to potential destruction.

The references to Gehenom add another dimension to Korach’s sin. The idea of him being an “inmate” might be the Talmud’s emphasis on how evil this sin was. We tend to associate seriousness of sin with degrees of morality. Murder and adultery personify immorality, evil in the purest sense. An appeal to religious equality would not appear to share the same degree of gravity. As we see from God’s reaction, the sin of Korach was as terrible as any other. The second idea (although not included) of Gehenom might refer to Korach’s complete belief in his approach. There are times when a person commits a sin, but he is conflicted. His desires pull him one way while his mind tries to stop him. In this instance, Korach bought into his philosophy, free of conflict. The path to Gehenom was then wide open to him. 

Korach’s particular sin stands in contrast to the other names listed in the verse. The turn to a more “generic” description of violating God’s command implies they were really riding Korach’s coattails. Datan and Aviram used the rebellion as a pretext to express their frustrations. As we see a few verses later, they attack Moshe’s leadership (Bamidbar 16:13):

“Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?”

Note their reference to Egypt as being the land of abundance. Datan and Aviram could not accept Moshe’s leadership, even though God had clearly designated him with that unique role. Therefore, they piggybacked off Korach’s rebellion to air their grievances. Their challenge to Moshe’s leadership was a rejection of God’s will, but it was much different than Korach’s ideology. Their argument was, for lack of a better term, silly. To refer to Egypt, where the Jewish people suffered for so long, as a “land flowing with milk and honey” was absurd. The entire line of reasoning reflected a plan that lacked any wisdom.

Datan and Aviram were too caught up in their frustration, and therefore could not engage in repentance. On, though, was able to overcome the emotional trappings of challenging Moshe’s leadership, thinking into the entire argument, and exposing it as a fallacy. He was therefore able to repent. As is clear from the Talmud, the overall approach of these three individuals was in stark contrast to Korach’s philosophy.
 One of the main concepts we can derive from this analysis of Korach is the danger in subjecting the ideology of Torah to our sense of what we think is fair and just.

The Torah, being a Divine system, lays out the path to perfection for man. Each command given by God contains the deepest wisdom. When we come across an idea that does not fit into our subjective view of “correct”, we must be very careful in how we proceed. Adapting the Torah to what is accepted as fair by the surrounding world is a direct rejection of its Divine objectivity. We cannot give in to those emotions, as they will always lead us down Korach’s path of destruction.