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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Korach

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Parashat Korach

Tamuz 5, 5780 – June 27, 2020

Torah Reading: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Haftarah: Samuel I 11:14 – 12:22

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Korach. This parashah takes its name from the man who “separated himself” (16:1) by inciting a rebellion and challenging two structures of authority: 1) the civic leadership of Moshe and 2) priestly authority of Aaron. This man was Korach – a Levite and first cousin (patrilineal, Exodus 6:18-21) of Moshe and Aaron, who enlisted the help of two other men from the Tribe of Reuben (Dathan and Abiram) to cause an uprising. Some scholars insist that there were actually two separate uprisings, involving two separate groups – one concerning Korach and his protestations against the priesthood, and the other involving Dathan and Abiram who challenged Moshe’s legitimacy.[1] Ramban maintains that Korach’s resentment began when Aaron was made Kohen Gadol,[2] and – as a Levite and firstborn (Exodus 6:21) – he took issue with the kehunah (priesthood) being given to Aaron. Later, in Deuteronomy 6:11, Dathan and Abiram were named without any mention of Korach and the Levites, which has contributed to the theory that there were indeed two separate uprisings. Either way, Moshe addresses both of these incidents together in this parashah, and they can – therefore – be associated (at least) thematically. However, there are two additional reasons we can link these insurrections together. Firstly, the Tribe of Reuben did encamp near Korach’s family on the south side of the Tabernacle, which is where the Mishnaic adage “Woe to the evildoer and woe to his neighbor” is soured from (Negaim12:6).[3] Korach, Dathan and Abiram all lived close to one another, and certain spiritual conditions of impurity – caused by slander – are transferrable simply by proximity.[4] The mere nearness of their camps was, therefore, a precondition for their collaboration in the shared mutiny. Secondly, if you remember back to Genesis (35:22), Reuben slept with Bilhah forfeiting his right to the firstborn status; the prerogatives of the birthright are, then, transferred to Joseph. In Egypt, the firstborns (who would have run the priesthood) are “acquired” by G-d. This precedes the Sin of the Golden Calf though, which then grants this role to the Levites – who didn’t participate in the idol worship.[5] So there is a relationship between the Tribe of Reuben, who have a historical claim to the priesthood, and other Levites that have grown discontent with their position below the kohanim.[6] Although, Dathan and Abiram’s main qualm (as presented in this parashah) is with Moshe’s leadership and the living conditions of the Israelites in the wilderness.

Korach, Dathan, and Aviram are joined by 250 people, who the Torah describes as “leaders of the assembly” and “men of renown” (16:2). Ibn Ezra also insists that these additional men were also firstborn – which was how Korach came to recruit them in the rebellion.[7] Then, two things happen: 1) These men offer sacred incense to prove they are worthy for the priesthood, and they are consumed by fire; and 2) a phenomenon occurs: the earth opens up and swallows the mutineers. This is the first environmental signpost of the parashah – the earth, here, has agency and intervenes as an authority to punish those who are obstinate. If you remember back from last week’s parashah (Parashat Shelach), the spies complain that “[it] is a land that devours its inhabitants” (13:32). I had described how the Israelites yearned for an existence whereby they could worship G-d and be free from the burdens of material life. The giants, the Nephilim, had become corrupted by materiality and it was the essence of this behavior that caused others to fall. The first hint that we can draw a parallel here, between the Nephilim and the mutineers, is when we read: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them…and the entire wealth. They and all that was theirs descended alive to the pit; the earth covered them over and they were lost from among the congregation” (16:33). The phrases “the entire wealth” and “all that was theirs” implies that people – and their possessions – were consumed by the earth. And so there was something about the nature of the wealth and possessions that needed to be lost forever – they couldn’t be used by anyone else in the future as they would have “been a source of merit for the wicked if their property had brought benefit to good people.”[8] The Sages teach us that one of the reasons that Jacob returned to fetch a few, small, earthenware vessels before wrestling with the angel (Parashat Vayishlach) is that “to the righteous, their money is dearer to them than their bodies.”[9] The message is that we must avoid dishonesty at all costs and that wealth, earned honestly, has spiritual value. The implication is that wealth, earned dishonestly, can carry with it a spiritual antagonism – and this is what we are learning of Korach and his assembly. If future generations had benefited from dishonest wealth, it empowers the wrongdoer and perpetuates the legacy. This may not have been the principle reason for Korach’s downfall, but it certainly was a consequence. And it was the earth who intervened on behalf of justice.

The contemporary lesson for us is that we will never benefit from a form of materiality garnered through systems of corruption, deception, and fraud. Whether it’s the clothes we buy, the food we eat, or the land we live on – materiality carries with it a history, an energy, and a memory that influences our own spirituality and propensity for holiness. In the Midrash, the Sages explain that Korach was a wealthy man and that this wealth is what caused the arrogance which led to his downfall.[10] With this, we can make the assumption that Korach’s arrogance is linked to his critique of hierarchy and his advocation of a disruptive variety of distinction. In (16:3) we read him claim: “For the entire assembly – all of them – are holy and Hashem is among them.” Korach wasn’t wrong to argue for the innate holiness of every Jew. But he was wrong to omit a critical element of holiness, and that is personal action. On one level, there was a hypocrisy to Korach’s logic – he claimed that all Israelites were equal in holiness, yet he desired the position of Kohen Gadol for himself. On another level, to argue that every Jew was uniform in their level of holiness does not create harmony – only homogeneity.[11] In a sense, this cheapens all of the variegated roles that people play throughout life – there are the artisans, the craftspeople, the men, the women, the Levites, the kohanim, and the Kohen Gadol. And, yes, they all correlate to different levels of holiness. But that’s because they all serve a different material purpose, and a dynamic is created in a relationality to the greater whole. This is a principle we see mirrored in nature – homogeneity is not a condition that establishes resiliency, and ecosystems can’t function if every organism exists on the same level. Two trophic levels create a schism, rather than a balance. And this is why action is a fundamental component to holiness; we affect a multiplicity (a form of pluralism) through our engagement with materiality. Holiness is not exclusively based on a birthright, nor is it simply about desiring to “separate” oneself from the material. Our holiness is shaped by the way we use the wealth of this world to honor a common goal. Korach was not wrong to yearn for a more spiritual life, only that he dishonored the dynamic of material purpose. He created a schism between the spiritual and the material, and the earth punished him for it.

To be honest, I understand that all of this sounds quite intellectual. But when we reduce down the rebellion spurred on by Korach, in my reading of the event, his problem was about integration. He wasn’t using his wealth, or his action, to integrate into Israelite society and to work for the greater goal – only his own personal power. This is why I would say that it wasn’t necessarily that he rebelled, but how he rebelled that was the problem. When Aaron uses the incense later to halt a plague, he “stood between the dead and the living.” (17:13). He was enacting a form of integration to instigate healing. The mutineers used the incense to prove their spiritual superiority, and they were killed for it. And so we see that it wasn’t the use of the incense that killed the mutineers, it was the sin that preceded it. Wealth corrupts us when we don’t integrate it appropriately into our lives; it doesn’t mean that we can’t have wealth, or that we need to give all of our money away. It’s about realizing that the possessions we have must serve an appropriate purpose; we must use them, and source them responsibly and ethically. This is how we integrate materiality into our spirituality. Otherwise the earth may swallow us.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The autonomy of the earth in the Rebellion of Korach, the earth swallowing the mutineers and their possessions, and the proper integration of material wealth into our lives


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.895 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.820 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.821 [4] Leviticus 13:46 [5] Exodus 32:25-29 [6] herman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.820 [7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.820 [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.827 [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.175 [10] Midrash Tehillim 49:3 and Shemot Raba 31:3, as sourced from: [11]

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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