Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Korach
To dedicate this lesson

Preserving the Old, Inspiring the New

Why did Moshe respond so differently with Korah and his gang than with Eldad and Medad? Regarding the latter, he prayed that everyone should be a prophet - yet with Korah, he was greatly angered at the claim that "everyone is equally holy." Why?

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Rabbi Yossef Carmel

Sivan 30 5781
As we prepare to read Parashat Korah, let us discuss groups that are often called the "elites." They direct a social-spiritual trend in which the individual has become the center, while the religious, ethnic or national group to which he belongs is shunted to the sidelines. With this approach, individual rights override one's obligations to the larger community, and the uniqueness of each individual is manifest mainly in terms of, "For me the world was created."

Given this trend, it is clear that the acceptance of authority, whether it be political or spiritual, is far from automatic. This is actually what stands behind much of what comprises the news and public discourse that take up so much of our attention.

In the Torah readings of recent weeks, we saw at least two incidents of insurgence against Moshe Rabbeinu. In Be-ha'alot'kha, we read of Eldad and Medad who "prophesied in the camp" without permission from Moshe. The reaction of Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe's right-hand man, was resolute (Bamidbar 11,28): "My master, Moshe: imprison them!" But Moshe responded differently: "Would it be that the entire nation of G-d would be prophets, that G-d would place His spirit upon them" (verse 29).

And of course, here in Parashat Korah we read of Korah and his gang protesting the leadership roles of Moshe and Aharon. The Medrash tells us: "The Sages said, Korah was very wise and one of those who carried the Holy Ark;" that is, he belonged to the "elites." The Torah itself is also quite complimentary of the 250 men who allied themselves with Korah, calling them "princes of the congregation, representatives at the assembly, and men of good reputation" (Bamidbar 16,2). The Sages add that they stood out within the community and that they were famous "around the world."

And it was precisely this group of "elites" that rebelled against Moshe and Aharon and declared, "You have taken too much! The entire community is holy [and not only you]" (verse 3).

Their complaint was: "We have no need for your leadership, Moshe and Aharon. Let every individual lead himself, in his own particular way."

This time, Moshe responded very differently, announcing that there would be a "test" in which G-d would choose Israel's leaders: "If these people die a normal death, you shall know that G-d did not send me. But if… the earth opens up and swallows them… you will know that they have provoked G-d." (verses 29-30)

Why did Moshe respond so differently with Korah and his gang than with Eldad and Medad? Regarding the latter, he prayed that everyone should be a prophet - yet with Korah, he was greatly angered at the claim that "everyone is equally holy." Why?

The two cases are actually quite different. Almost all of Judaism is based on acceptance of authority, derived from the chain of tradition that began at Mt. Sinai. This is a process that favors the elder and the learned, and subordinates those who are still students. It ensures the continuation of the tradition that is so necessary, especially in the field of halakhah [Jewish Law], where a student is forbidden to say "what he did not hear from his teacher." Therefore, direct and constant learning from a Torah scholar is a necessary condition when one wishes to teach others.

Prophecy, on the other hand, is based on individualism; it was never given to a group of people at once. Prophecy is the word of G-d that is revealed to an individual, to the point where, as the Gemara says (Sanhedrin 89a), "no two prophets prophesize in the same style." The ability to prophesize is seemingly obtained via searching and self-actualization, with "purity that leads to sanctity that leads to Ruach HaKodesh (holy inspiration)." There is no need for a tradition in order to attain prophecy; the opposite is actually true, since prophecy deals with that which is new and renews, and not with that which is fixed and set.

This is why the unauthorized prophecy of Eldad and Medad did not pose a threat to Moshe's authority, nor to the chain of tradition that is so vital for the preservation of Judaism from generation to generation.

This is not at all the case with Korah, who directly threatened Moshe's leadership, and thus the entire concept of tradition in Israel.

Let us pray that we merit to develop as individuals, thus bringing us many who can serve G-d also in their own personal ways. Let us strive that the "elites" will merit to preserve the individuality of each person, out of a deep sense of obligation to the entire community and also with total loyalty to the way of Torah that has been accepted and passed on through the generations, without abandoning the way of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. May we be privileged to new Torah insights and innovativeness, while preserving our loyalty to that which we have received from our teachers.
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