Numbers Look Inward: Learning from Korach’s Downfall
Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
In this week’s Torah portion, Korah (after whom the reading is named) and other prominent members of ancient Israelite society brazenly challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership, resulting in the dramatic death of the rebels through supernatural means (16:31-35).
Over the centuries, biblical interpreters have explored the figure of Korah, a member of the Levite tribe and Moses and Aaron’s cousin. What inspired this man to challenge his divinely-appointed relatives? Why did he seek to overthrow them? Did he act in good conscience or was he guided by lesser motives?
In one intriguing comment on this episode by the early hasidic master, Rabbi Meshullam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh (d. 1795), the mystical preacher offers the following psychological insight regarding Korah (see Yosher Divrei Emet #30):
Even though Korah possessed both intelligence and the holy spirit, a spark of envy remained within him. He had not purified his heart of it in a total way… He thought that Moses was using his exalted role in a way that opposed truth, that he had strayed from truth and erred in aggrandizing himself. It was Moses’s sense of his own greatness, Korah thought, that caused him to exalt himself over God’s community, as he said: “Why do you uplift yourselves over the congregation of YHWH” (Numbers 16:3)?
Our teacher points out that while Moses did carry himself with a sense of nobility, he did so “for the sake of God, to guide people in God’s service.” Rabbi Meshullam Feibush adds that Moses was a deeply humble person, which is why he demurred when the Divine first called on him to serve as the liberator of the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 4). Moses relented only after the Almighty pressed him to accept this great charge. Rabbi Meshullam Feibush rounds out his defense of Moses by arguing that the Israelite leader continued to walk humbly throughout his life, as attested to by the Torah’s declaration in the Book of Numbers that he was “humbler than any person on the face of the earth” (12:3).
Korah, however, could not accept that Moses was able to act with “greatness” while remaining a person of humility and integrity. According to Rabbi Meshullam Feibush, the ancient figure erred in his judgement because he could not admit to his own envy, and so thrust his lack upon Moses. He continues, “Korah thought just the opposite, as the evil of envy caused his heart to see bad as good and good as bad.” As a result, Korah believed that Moses was an irredeemably haughty person, who led from a place of arrogance, and not out of a genuine sense of duty.
Using Korah as a case study, Rabbi Meshullam Feibush then turns his attention directly to the listener (and reader), stating that it requires “great faith” to recognize a “lack” in oneself, particularly when a person genuinely seeks to do good. “Take care: it might be sinful self-exaltation that makes you want to do a mitzvah that is not required of you and that might be performed by somebody else.” With this incisive remark, the preacher redirects our attention from the ancient world to contemporary life. No longer are we discussing a fallen biblical figure, but ourselves (whether or not we play public leadership roles). Like Korah, we wish to contribute and serve meaningfully, and we have ego needs that can lead us astray if we do not acknowledge and channel them appropriately. We must ask ourselves why we want to engage in a certain action, if it is “required” of us, or if there may be someone else better suited for it?
As my teacher Rabbi Arthur Green notes, in this hasidic presentation of Korah, the disgruntled rebel is not “a person of wicked intent,” but “one who did not turn his sharp eye of critical judgement inward on himself” (see Speaking Torah: Spiritual Insights from Around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, p. 34). While we all have a need to be seen and valued and can feel jealous of others, Rabbi Meshullam Feibush calls us to carefully weigh and measure these emotions, and to honestly assess how they contribute to our perception of ourselves and others.
Rabbi Or Rose is Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.