Parasha Koraj – English

Bemidvar – Numbers 16:1-18:32

In the Middle Ages, there used to be travelling rabbis who passed through small villages and were invited to offer a Divrei Torah (commentary on the Torah reading) before the local congregation. It is said that one of these teachers, who was seemingly not too good a speaker, had prepared the best of sermons about Korah’s story, so that, whatever the parashah of the week might be, he would always deliver it.
When the time came, the rabbi would stand before the parishioners, pull out a handkerchief, dry his forehead and appear to let it fall to the ground. He would then duck down to retrieve it for several seconds and, after a while, he would exclaim: “Good heavens! Seems it was swallowed by the earth! Just as Korah! And speaking of Korah…”
This week’s parashah is named after Korah (this time, the handkerchief trick is not necessary). It brings us the well known story of the uprising led by this famous character, first cousin to Moses, along with Dathan and Abiram, from the tribe of Reuben and another 250 important leaders.
The dramatic finale, when the earth opens and “swallows” the rebels alive, makes the story famous, and therein sprouts the image of its main character, who in the post biblical world reaches the category of an arch villain.
It is surprising to note that, even though the biblical text itself somehow vindicates Korah’s descendants –Samuel came from his lineage (I Chronicles 6:18-23), and his sons are ascribed with the authorship of 11 psalms– subsequent sources end up describing Korah as a vile, wicked and corrupt figure.
Flavius Josephus (1st century CE), on his “Jews of Antiquity”, affirms that Korah was a wealthy man, with great powers of speech and persuasion; a social climber, full of envy (Book IV, Chapter 2). The Talmud defines him as newly rich, a man who discovered one of Joseph’s treasures (Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 110a), and as a heretic who maintained that “the Torah was not divine, Moses was not a prophet nor Aaron High Priest” (Jerusalem Talmud: Sanhedrin 10:1). The Midrash presents him as a shrewd expert of the legal digressions he puts forward, instigated by his wife, in order to prove the imperfection of the Mosaic law and, therefore, its distance from God’s perfection (Bemidvar Rabba 18:3-4).
With this background, it is not surprising that Jewish folklore has found in this character a source of inspiration. For example, there is a saying in Yiddish: “Er is reich vi Korah” (Is rich like Korah), and in Ladino, “aserze Korah” means to rapidly acquire a fortune of dubious origins.
Beyond the fascination posed by the Torah, with such a spectacular ending to the story, why should Korah be considered such a dreadful personality? Perhaps we can find some answers in the presentation at the beginning of our parashah: “…all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
Korah’s attack is directed against the leaders. We can imagine him inciting the mob: “If, as God said (Ex. 19:6), Israel is a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, why should some people consider themselves holier than the rest?” At first glance, the proposal seems attractive. We are all holy, therefore, we do not need leaders. The people are so intelligent that the figures of Moses and Aaron are unnecessary.
However, questioning the legitimacy of leaders and their roles is Korah’s first step. He wants to spread chaos. And if he does, he will have achieved his purpose: to present himself before the people as their savior and assume the role of leader, the same role he proclaimed unnecessary. If he had been successful, Korah’s rebellion would have been just one more of so many revolutions in human history, betrayed by their own instigators.
It would seem that Korah’s demagogic criticism was his strategy to assume power. Beneath his call to equality, his ambition was concealed. As a last resort, Korah could have appropriated for himself the words written by George Orwell on “Animal Farm”: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
It would seem paradoxical, but it is not. Korah’s proposals not only survived but were incorporated later on by Jewish tradition (there are no longer priests, rabbis are teachers, any Jew can lead almost every ritual), however, his figure is associated with the worst characters in the Bible.
The long history of our people –with varied climates, geographies and circumstances–, generates a dynamic which allows ideas to appear and disappear, rise and fall. What is advisable today may be not advisable tomorrow, and vice versa. What does not change is the contempt for those who turned out traitors.
In short, he who opened his mouth and used the people for his own benefit, turned out doomed. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed him. Worse yet, that same people transformed him into an arch villain.

Shabbat Shalom,