"The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave Doré, 1865
"The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave Doré, 1865

Unite for a positive cause, not against a common enemy

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 16:1-18:32

The story of Korach is one of those episodes in the Torah that does not get enough attention in Jewish education circles — maybe because it comes close to summer, when schools and other programs have ended their curricula.

However, the narrative is dramatic and deserves our attention as the first real case of insurrection in the history of the Israelites.

It cuts right to the chase. Korach took himself, along with Datan and Aviram and On, to rise up in the face of Moses, along with 250 noblemen of the community, men called to distinction and of renown. (Numbers 16:1-2)

Rashi and others notice that there is an object missing in the sentence. What exactly did Korach take? Rashi answers that he took himself and the others to the other side of a machlokes (dispute). He challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron and created a confrontation.

There is another issue that is created by the verb “took” in this verse. The chief antagonists are a group, yet the verb vayikach is the singular form. In Hebrew, the predicate has to match the subject in both gender and number. It would have been more in line with our conventions of Biblical grammar to use vayikchu, which would denote the group’s plurality.

There are other occasions in which the same verb is used in the singular form, even when modifying multiple actors.

In the story of Noah, we are told that two of Noah’s sons covered him with a blanket after his youngest son had committed some act of treachery against their father (Genesis 9:23). In that verse, we find the singular vayikach is used for “took” instead of the plural vayikchu.

Fortunately, Rashi tackles this grammatical anomaly, offering this explanation: When two subjects are acting and one of them is primary, then the verb will switch to singular form.

In the case of the Noah story, Shem was leading his brother in his desire to preserve the dignity of their father, and Yefet went along only tangentially. Had the verb been pluralized, the reader would be under the impression that they both had the same level of intent and initiative in the act. To make it clear that one is the dominant player, the Torah switches the language to use the singular verb form.

Using the same rationale for this week’s parashah, it seems that Korach was the initiator and lead figure in the rebellion against Moses and Aaron.

The others were mentioned as primary notables in the story, but Korach was the architect of the scheme to undermine the authority of leadership. That explains why the negative commandment in the Torah is stated as, “They should not be like Korach and his assembly!” (Numbers 17:5)

Further, in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) it states that the prime example of a dispute, one that is not for the sake of Heaven, is the dispute of Korach and his assembly. Korach is clearly being singled out as the primary actor.

There is something in the nature of this dispute that applies in our times, as well.

Korach was disgruntled, according to Rashi’s commentary, because Moses and Aaron chose a cousin to represent the Levites’ sub-tribe known as Kehat. In his quest for power, he recruits people from the tribe of Reuben (who should likewise be miffed over not being chosen to minister to God, since Reuben was the first born of Jacob).

If the Reubenites would gain the power they seek, then there would be no role for Korach in that arrangement, either. The opposite is true, as well. If Korach is successful at displacing Aaron as the High Priest, he is also not giving the Reubenites the justice they seek.

The initial claim against Moses and Aaron is that the entire assembly is holy and that they should not lord themselves over the people (Numbers 16:3). Logically, Korach talks about pushing for democracy in order to garner support. In reality, he wants to rule. Nonetheless, the toxic nature of his divisiveness spreads and he manages to garner the support of unlikely allies.

Negativity can work that way. It grows and festers and leads to unlikely bedfellows.

Unfortunately, we see the same reality in our own political climate.

If we examine the agendas of groups, we would notice that the different groups’ agendas often are contradictory. But the negativity against a common cause brings together organizations that would never agree on core principles.

The growing movement of intersectionality comes to mind.

We should keep in mind that there is a commandment in the Torah not to act like Korach and pursue disputes for the sake of self-gain. We should all be building bridges that bring people together for positivity.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.