Winning Over the Masses

And they congregated against Moshe and Aharon. And they said to them: You have enough authority. For all the assembly is completely holy. And among them is Hashem. Why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of Hashem? (Sefer BeMidbar 16:3)

[1]Our parasha discusses the rebellion of Korach and his followers. Moshe had appointed Aharon as Kohen Gadol – high priest. His children became the Kohanim – the priests. The tribe of Leyve served as the Kohanim's assistants. Korach and his followers questioned Moshe's authority to make these appointments.

Korach was a shrewd leader. He realized he could not present his rebellion as an attempt to achieve personal power. To secure popular support, he presented himself as a champion of the people. He argued that they did not need religious leaders. They were all holy. The Almighty’s influence was felt within the camp of Bnai Yisrael. There was no need to have a Kohen or other intermediaries between the people and Hashem.

Rashi quotes a midrash that describes a debate between Moshe and Korach. Korach presented Moshe with a series of questions. One regarded the tzitzit of the tallaitHalachah requires that a tallait – a four cornered garment – must have fringes on each of its corners. These fringes are threads that are tied to the corners of the garment. They are called tzitzit. One of the threads, on each corner, must be blue. This tread was colored with techelit – a special blue dye. Korach presented Moshe with a tallait that was woven entirely of threads that were colored with techelit. He asked Moshe if this tallait required tzitzit. Moshe responded that it certainly did. Korach then ridiculed Moshe’s exposition of the law. He argued that a single blue thread on each corner renders a garment permissible. Certainly, a garment composed entirely of such threads should be permissible, without the additional fringes.[2]

Korach’s argument can be understood on different levels. At the simplest level, Korach intended to undermine Moshe. Moshe was the ultimate arbitrator of all questions of halachah. He had complete authority to interpret the laws of the Torah. Korach ridiculed Moshe’s understanding of the Torah. He asserted that the system of halachah that Moshe expounded was not logical and even led to unreasonable conclusions. Through undermining Moshe’s interpretation of the Torah, Korach attacked the foundation of his authority over Bnai Yisrael.

Rabbaynu Meir Libush – Malbim – provides another level of interpretation to Korach’s argument. The tallait represented Bnai Yisrael. A tallait that is composed of common threads requires fringes of blue. Similarly, were Bnai Yisrael composed of common people, spiritual leaders would be required. However, each member of the nation was holy. They were comparable to a tallait composed entirely of blue thread. Certainly, this garment would not require blue threads at its corners. Therefore, the people also did not require a spiritual leader.[3]

Attacking Your Opponent When He’s Down[4]

Is it a small [issue] that you took us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to put us to death in the wilderness, that you will also rule over us? Also, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey and given us a possession of field and vineyard. If you blind the eyes of those people, we will not ascend. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:13-14) 

Parshat Korach follows the Chumash's narrative of the sin of the spies and its consequences. What is the relationship between these events?

Nachmanides points out another difficulty in the parasha. Datan and Aviram were two of the leaders in this rebellion. They had joined Korach in his  challenge of Moshe's authority. Moshe approached them. He wished to resolve their issues. Datan and Aviram rejected Moshe's summons. In their refusal to speak with Moshe, they articulated the grievances expressed in the above passages. They said that Moshe had failed to bring them into the Land of Israel. Instead, they were destined to die in the wilderness. These issues were not mentioned by Korach. Datan and Aviram are raising an additional criticism of Moshe’s leadership. Why did they now raise this completely new and unrelated issue?

Nachmanides suggests a connection between these questions. He explains that the incident of the spies caused a basic change in the relationship between Moshe and Bnai Yisrael. Moshe led the nation out of bondage. He brought them to Sinai. At the sin of the Egel HaZahav – the golden calf, Moshe intervened with the Almighty and saved the nation from destruction. Moshe secured, for the people, their every need. As a result, Bnai Yisrael was completely devoted and loyal to Moshe. This does not mean that the people always understood or agreed with Moshe's decisions. However, they did not challenge his authority.

The sin of the spies changed this relationship. Moshe did not save the generation. They would die in the wilderness. They would not enter the Land of Israel. Bnai Yisrael were disappointed with their destiny and with Moshe.

Korach could now challenge Moshe and attract followers. He seized this opportunity. Datan and Aviram joined this rebellion. In their response to Moshe, they explained their motivations. They no longer were willing to follow Moshe blindly. They told Moshe that he had failed them. He no longer deserved the nation's complete trust and obedience.

This explains the connection between Parshat Korach and the previous parasha. The incident of the spies provided the basis for the events in our parasha.[5]

It should be noted that this rebellion was an aberration in the nation’s attitude toward Moshe. The rebellion was put down and Bnai Yisrael renewed its allegiance to Moshe . The people followed his direction for the remaining forty years in the wilderness. This overall attitude of loyalty is an amazing phenomenon. Generally, a leader must produce for his or her followers. The public has little patience. Yet, this generation followed Moshe with the knowledge that it would expire in the wilderness and never achieve its goal. The nation’s acceptance of Moshe’s leadership even after it was condemned to wander in the wilderness is powerful testimony to the impact of the miracles he performed and the nation's conviction in his authenticity as Hashem's true prophet. 

Fighting for the Cause[6]

And Moshe was much angered and he said to Hashem: Do not accept their offering. I have not taken from one of them a donkey. I have not done harm to one of them. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:15) 

Moshe summons Datan and Aviram. They refuse to respond. They tell Moshe that he has failed to fulfill his promises to Bnai Yisrael. They proclaim that they will not relent in their rebellion. They will not respond to his summons. Moshe becomes angry with Datan and Aviram. He prays to Hashem for their punishment.

Moshe had shown remarkable patience with Bnai Yisrael. He tried to bring the rebellion to a peaceful conclusion. However, at this point, Moshe abruptly changed his approach. Instead of continuing his efforts to find a solution, he asked the Almighty to punish Datan and Aviram. What caused this change?

The remarks of Datan and Aviram represent a change in the nature of the rebellion. Until this point, Korach and his followers had fought Moshe to achieve greater prominence. They wished to be priests and leaders. Moshe knew that their motives were basically selfish. He concluded that he needed to show the rebels that their own self-interest was not served by their quarrel. His efforts, to this point, were directed to this end. He told Korach and his followers to offer the ketoret – the incense. Nadav and Avihu – Aharon’s sons – had died offering unsanctioned ketoret. Korach and his followers knew that if Hashem does not accept their offering, He will take their lives. Moshe gave them a day to consider the challenge. He hoped that they would realize that accepting the challenge would lead to their own destruction.

Datan and Aviram convinced Moshe that this approach would not be effective. To understand Moshe’s conclusion, Datan and Aviram’s response to Moshe must be considered. Datan and Aviram told Moshe that they would not appear before him. They told Moshe he had failed Bnai Yisrael. They concluded their message with an enigmatic statement, “If you blind the eyes of those people, we will not ascend.” What did they mean? 

Rashi explains that they employed a form of expression found occasionally in the Torah. They spoke of themselves in the third person. They told Moshe, “You cannot force us to appear before you. Even if you blind us, we will not come before you.”[7] With this response, Moshe realized that they had elevated the rebellion to a moral cause. They had convinced themselves that they were fighting for an exalted purpose. Their cause was so imperative that they would sacrifice themselves for it.

The bloodiest wars have been fought over such issues. The leaders may be guided by simple self-interest. But those who comprise the forces that meet on the crimson battlefield are moved by far more intense considerations. Self-interest does not motivate the soldier to risk death. Self-interest alone cannot support such a gamble. The combatants must believe that some greater good will be served through their death. Their commitment to this lofty goal, inspires them to endure hardship and danger, to risk their lives.

Datan and Aviram’s words convinced Moshe that he was engaged in such a "holy war." He could not win the battle by convincing Korach and his followers that their actions were not in their own best interest. He could only appeal to Hashem to punish the rebels.

[1] Reprinted from “Thoughts on the Parasha” 5761 with minor revisions. 

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:3.

[4] Reprinted from “Thoughts on the Parasha” 5761 with minor revisions.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.

[6] Reprinted from “Thoughts on the Parasha” 5761 with minor revisions.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:14.