Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) introduces Parashat Korach:
“In the last Sedrah [Shelach Lecha] we had seen the people threatening to appoint a chieftain who was to take them back to Egypt. It was ominous of further serious revolt
“When the rebellion broke out, it was widespread though not homogeneous. On the one hand, there were those who were discontented with the leadership of Moshe. These were led by Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben, the tribe that once possessed but now had lost the ‘birthright’ in Israel, and was, it seems, chafing for the recovery of that primacy.
“On the other hand, there were Korach – himself a Levite – and his followers, who were aggrieved with Aaron, to whose family all priestly privileges were now confined. These two groups of malcontents worked separately, and they were in the end cut off by entirely different acts of G-d (vs. 32 and 35). Their punishment was signal, since the vindication of Moshe and Aaron had to be complete. Otherwise, anarchy would soon have destroyed national unity; and, it its trail, there would have followed the total frustration of whatever Divine Mission was in store for Israel on the arena of history.”
Korach was a demagogue, and like all successful demagogues he knew how to promise different things to different people without his inconsistencies being immediately apparent. And like all demagogues, what he really wanted was power for himself.
His challenge to Moshe sounds almost like an anarchist’s protest against any form of authority: “You’ve taken too much greatness for yourselves! – Because the entire congregation – all of them – are holy, with Hashem in their midst. So why do you aggrandise yourselves over Hashem’s assembly?” (Numbers 16:3). That is to say – we are all equal, all equally holy, so why should you, Moshe and Aaron, have any authority over anyone else?!
Yet Moshe understood what lay behind Korach’s rebellion. He responded:
“Hear now, O sons of Levi: Is it not enough for you that the G-d of Israel has set you apart from the congregation of Israel, bringing you near to Himself, to carry out the Service of the Tabernacle of Hashem, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them? He brought you and all your brothers, the sons of Levi with you, close to Him – but you also want the Priesthood!” (vs. 8-10).
The Targum Yonatan renders: “…but you also demand the High Priesthood!”.
Like all demagogues who want power for themselves, Korach knew how to dress up his lust for power in the guise of equality for all.
Dathan and Abiram, too, knew how to play on people’s hopes and fears, how to use and abuse their dreams. When Moshe summoned them to appear before him, they arrogantly responded: “We will not go up! Isn’t it enough that you brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert – but now you rule over us, and will rule over us yet more?! And you didn’t bring us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor did you give us a field or vineyard as an inheritance! Would you gouge out the eyes of these men?! – We will not go up!” (Numbers 16:12-14).
Korach, Dathan and Abiram knew only too well how demoralised the people were after the fiasco of the spies, how devastated the adults (the men above the age of 20 years) were at being condemned to spend the rest of their lives in the desert. They knew the power that the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” had over their listeners; they knew how to distort and pervert its inspiring echoes by applying it to Egypt – Egypt, the house of slavery!
And the people, those who despaired of ever seeing the real Land flowing with milk and honey, were horribly susceptible to Dathan and Abiram’s deceptive substitution of Egypt, that most impure of lands, for Israel, the holiest of lands, and to Korach’s spurious claims of egalitarianism.
It is important to understand, however, that Korach was no common rabble-rouser, and his supporters were no common street-urchins. The two hundred and fifty people who rallied to Korach’s call were “princes of the congregation, those called to the meetings, men of renown” (16:2).
That is to say, “they were the most distinguished of the community; ‘those called to the meetings’ – they were skilled in determining leap years and months; ‘men of renown’ – famous throughout the world” (Sanhedrin 110a).
Rashi (commentary to Sanhedrin 52b, s.v. למה תלמיד) states unequivocally that these 250 men were תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים, talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars); and the Metzudat Zion (commentary to Ezekiel 23:23) calls them “gedolim” – Torah-leaders of the generation.
But maybe this should not be all that surprising: after all, Korach and his gang were continuing in the footsteps of the ten spies, who were also among the greatest Torah-leaders of the generation, and who so recently had led the nation into disaster by rejecting the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal Hy”d (1885-1945), in his seminal work “Em ha-Banim Semeichah” (“A joyful mother of children”, a phrase taken from Psalms 113:9), has fascinating insights into the spies’ character and the implications for today.
Rabbi Teichtal, who was initially fervently anti-Zionist, changed his views entirely during the Holocaust; he wrote “Em ha-Banim Semeichah” while on the run from the Nazis in 1943, and was murdered on a train transporting prisoners from Auschwitz to Mauthausen on 10th Sh’vat 5705 (24th January 1945).
“The holy Zohar and the Shelah explain that selfish motives caused the spies to commit [their sin]. They feared that they were fit to be princes [only] in the desert, but once they enter the Land of Israel new princes would be appointed. Let this be an instructive lesson.
"Even the greatest gadol in Torah and righteousness should not trust himself when he opposes the movement to build the Land. He should not think that his intentions are fully for the sake of Heaven, for he is certainly no greater in Torah and righteousness than the princes whom Moshe sent. Consider and study this well and you will see that it is the truth” (Chapter 3).
He continues: “Moshe chose the wisest and most righteous men to be the spies. Nevertheless, the Midrash refers to them as “foolish messengers” since they spread an evil report about the Land. The same is true today. Our tzaddikim are certainly no more righteous or learned than the spies were… Rabbi Yosef Chayyim Sonnenfeld z”l derived from the words of the Shelah that even tzaddikim can be spies” (Chapter 4:18).
A few pages earlier, Rabbi Teichtal cites Rabbi Yosef Chayyim Sonnenfeld’s precise words: “The Shelah says that the spies were tzaddikim. Thus even tzaddikim can be spies!” (Chapter 4:16).
And if tzaddikim can be spies, then tzaddikim can also be rebels against the authority of Moshe.
When the spies chose their own prestige over the Land of Israel, the generation was condemned to remain in the desert, and all men over the age of 20 years were doomed to die in the desert.
When Korach and his gang threatened to return to Egypt rather than accept Moshe’s authority and to continue the trek towards the Land of Israel, thousands were killed: at least 250 who were with Korach who were swallowed into the ground (Numbers 16:31-33), another 250 who were killed by fire (v.35), and 14,700 in the plague (17:14).
When the tzaddikim, the Torah leaders of the generation, choose their own prestige over the Torah, or over the Land of Israel, or both, the entire nation inevitably suffers. Thus it was with the spies, and thus it was immediately afterwards with Korach and his gang, and thus has it been even since.
Even in our own time, we have seen how even among the greatest tzaddikim and the greatest of the Torah sages there have been those who preferred money, power, and prestige to the Land of Israel .
And we have seen, only too clearly, the stark horror of the results – the thousands of Jews murdered in terror attacks, the tens of thousands crippled and scarred for life, the unspeakable anguish of survivors at funerals and after.
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), we read Parashat Korach either on the first Shabbat of the month of Tammuz, or else (as this year 5782) on the Shabbat in which we announce the month of Tammuz in the coming week.
So as we prepare to enter the month of Tammuz, we begin to hear the ominous approach of the Three Weeks of mourning for lost Land and lost Holy Temple. This is the generation of return to the Land; and it is in our hands to make this also the generation of rebuilding the Holy Temple.
For sure, the spies and Korach and his gang are yet in our midst, the tzaddikim and Torah leaders who still oppose the return to the Land and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
We are only too familiar with the arguments from people as diverse as the spies, Korach, and Dathan and Abiram: it is forbidden to hasten the redemption; the Jewish nation is not yet ready for the Holy Temple; we must relinquish parts of the Land of Israel for the sake of pikuach nefesh (saving lives); life is holier than land; it is forbidden to rebel against the nations. The claims are legion.
But if, as Rabbi Teichtal Hy”d said, even the greatest gadol in Torah and righteousness should not trust himself when he opposes the movement to build the Land, then likewise even the greatest gadol in Torah and righteousness should not trust himself when he supports giving parts of the Land of Israel to a murderous enemy – especially if his personal prestige depends upon that withdrawal.
And neither must he trust himself when he opposes rebuilding the Holy Temple.
 A reference to certain truly great rabbis who instructed their political representatives in the Knesset (such as Shas) to vote in favour of the Oslo death agreements back in 5753 (1993), and others who allowed the withdrawal from the Sinai Desert in 5738 (1978), or who stubbornly remained in the government when Jewish communities were destroyed throughout Judea, Samaria, and Gaza over the decades.