Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Korach
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Hirsch At Your Table

Korah’s Rebellion

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ויקהלו על משה ואהרן ויאמרו עלהם רב לכם כי כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ד' ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ד'. (Nm 16:3)
After the failed revolt against God in the מרגלים incident, we now have a revolt against Moshe. Instigated by Korah, who sought to replace Moshe as leader, the rebels also attack Aharon and enlist the support of two hundred and fifty communal leaders. They claim that because of the unique relationship between the people and God, there is no need for intermediaries such as Moshe and Aharon.

What is the difference between the two verbs, ויקהלו/they gathered, and ויאמרו/they spoke, used in this verse to describe the initial verbal encounter between the rebels and Moshe and Aharon? The three ringleaders, Korah, Datan, and Aviram, first gathered and sought the support of the two hundred and fifty dissidents before they appeared before Moshe. Thus, when this crowd gathered to confront Moshe, the impression had already been created that this was a mass revolt and the ringleaders were speaking in the name of the masses. This was probably not the first, and certainly not the last time that men of ambition used the fiction that they were speaking for the sake of all the people in order to further their own cause.

The word ויקהלו is from the root ק-ה-ל which means "to gather to implement a plan." Its phonetic cognate י-א-ל means "to initiate." The word ויאמרו is from the root א-מ-ר which means "to organize speech."

In their guise as spokespersons for the whole nation, the ringleaders voiced two complaints. The first was the assertion of כל העדה כולם קדושים/the entire community is holy. This statement implies that the people had absorbed all of God’s goodness and therefore were the epitome of perfection. This assertion was a statement that declared that everyone was worthy and special to God, so no intermediaries to his worship were necessary.

The words כל and כולם are from the root כ-ל-ל which means "to complete" and to include everything in its entirety. The word עדה is from the root י-ע-ד "to arrange" to meet. A community meets to set rules of living together. The word קדושים is from the root ק-ד-ש which means "to dedicate all resources."

The second complaint was the question ומדוע תתנשאו. They charged that Moshe and Aharon had illegally assumed their positions of leadership. They questioned why/מדוע had they elevated/תתנשאו themselves to positions of leadership. The rebels were questioning the reason for Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. They claimed that even if leaders were necessary on the national level, the people should be able to choose them themselves. The rebels did not acknowledge that God had chosen Moshe and Aharon as leaders. By suggesting that Moshe and Aharon had raised themselves to positions of leadership, they cast into question the legitimacy of their leadership roles.

The word מדוע is from the double roots מ-ה-ה and י-ד-ע. The root מ-ה-ה means "to be unknown" and the root י-ד-ע means "to acquire knowledge." Combined in one word, the root means "to question reasons for something." The word תתנשאו is from the root נ-ש-א which means "to raise." In the reflexive form of our verse it means "to elevate oneself."

Hirsch tries to understand that element of the rebels’ message that could entice the two hundred and fifty leaders and the nation as a whole to agree to the removal of Moshe and Aharon. He concludes that it is the כל העדה כולם קדושים platform that brought the masses to Korah's cause. What the rebels were saying was that Moshe and Aharon were superfluous because each of the six hundred thousand Jews was holy and therefore would not require a priest to bring him closer to God. And in terms of non-religious or political matters, the rebels claimed, these same קדושים could choose their own leaders.
These accusations and arguments were not based upon misinformation or erroneous conceptions that could be explained and corrected, but were rooted in the people’s sense of their own כבוד/honor, and the self-interest of the rebel leaders. These leaders flattered the people by referring to them as קדושים, when in fact the people had a long way to go before they reached even the minimal level of קדושה. The earlier instruction of קדושים תהיו set the goal for the people that they must seek to constantly perfect themselves. There was no guarantee that any of them would ever reach this level, and the fact that the people were rebelling against the leaders chosen by God suggests just how far they were from any manner of קדושה. קדושים תהיו was not a promise, it was a command: The role of the Jew would be to strive towards that goal, even if it would sometimes seem beyond reach.

The word כבוד is from the root כ-ב-ד which means "to weigh" and impress." To be honored is to be considered important and impressive.

Moshe understood that this rebellion was not just a grab for power, but a denial of the divine origin of his mission. This is reinforced by the subsequent declaration by Datan and Aviram, who question the entire purpose of the Exodus and its goal of repossessing the Land of Canaan.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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