When Korach mutinied, Moses “fell on his face” (Num.16:4). Says Rashi,
“Because of ‘machloket’ (disputes)”.
We know that when scholars discuss and debate the Torah they put forward a range of interpretations. Sometimes their arguments become heated and noisy. Unpleasant scenes take place. Ugly things are said.
What happens next? In some cases the dispute dies down as quickly as it arises and the disputants remain firm friends regardless of their differences.
This is the kind of controversy that Rashi is referring to in his discussion of a passage in Kiddushin 30b, when he says,
“A struggle that revolves around the Torah ends in love”.
In other cases the stability of the whole community is affected and the wounds never heal. Years later the conflict is still going on even though no-one might clearly recall what caused it in the first place.
Moses feared that the problems caused by Korach might go on for ever. The leader’s task in trying to manage a large, unwieldy people and weld them into one could well be exacerbated and the whole future might be jeopardised. It’s not that everyone is expected to agree on everything (the first Viscount Samuel used to say,
“A nation without controversy is politically dead”,
but disagreement should be carried out agreeably and with respect and forbearance shown on both sides.
That kind of controversy is exemplified by Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, who had opposing views on over three hundred matters but loved each other nevertheless.
After the mutiny, the earth opened and swallowed up Korach. Why did it also swallow up his possessions (Num. 16:32)? After all, when other Biblical figures suffer punishment, who cares whether they had any possessions?
Maybe Korach was the sort of fellow who tried to make money out of his supposedly public-spirited activities. There is always a danger that a person who lives in the public eye will seek not only power and glory but also affluence – affluence, not merely influence. To achieve the affluence he might get up to mischief including corruption. The result? He becomes so tarnished that even the good he does disappears in the financial mess he causes.
Someone wrote an article in the “Jerusalem Post” recently, describing the life-style of the early prime ministers of Israel, none of whom had or cared about any level of wealth. David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and others of that generation worked indefatigably for the cause, lived a modest life and left little or no inheritance to their family.
There will always be serious debates amongst the historians as to these leaders’ policies and politics, but no-one will ever say that they were money-grabbers who besmirched their record. Korach may well be the unpleasant model of those who thought and did differently. Is that why the sidra begins Vayikkach Korach, “And Korach took”?
KARAISM & KORACHISM.
In the Middle Ages the Jewish people was torn asunder by the controversy of the Rabbanites and Karaites.
Ostensibly the conflict was concerned with the authority of the rabbinic tradition, with the Karaites claiming that only what is written in black and white in Scripture is entitled to be called Judaism. Unfortunately there was also a hidden agenda. The Karaite revolt, though presented as a genuine religious difference of opinion, arose out of personal pique and served sectional political ends.
In a sense, the spiritual forebears of the Karaites were Korach and his followers, who also claimed to be motivated by genuine concern for God and the Torah – Moses and Aaron, they argued, were autocrats, out of touch with the democratic nature of true Judaism; the Korachite slogan was that
“The whole congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst” (Num. 16:3)
… but underlying the argument was personal ambition and political status.
The tragedy was that Korach won votes by pretending to be the champion of the people, but if he had succeeded in overthrowing Moses the likelihood is that he would have become not only a demagogue but a dictator.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.