Korach’s Rebellion against the Authenticity of Halachah

And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon and they said to them: You have enough! For all of the nation – every member – are sacred and Hashem is among them. Why have you lifted yourselves above the congregation of Hashem? (Sefer BeMidbar 16:3)

1. The issue of conflict between Moshe and Korach
Parshat Korach describes a rebellion initiated and led by Korach against Moshe. The Torah provides two indications as to the issue that was the subject of the dispute. In the above passage Korah protests that every member of the nation is sacred. Therefore, it is not appropriate for Moshe to assume the role of leader. Apparently, Korach was proposing some form of collective leadership in which every member of the nation would participate.

Moshe responds to Korach with a rebuke. However, he does not accuse Korach of being an anarchist or even as being a naïve socialist. Instead, he rebukes Korach for pursuing power and authority. He says that, as a member of the Tribe of Leyve, Korach has been provided with a special sanctity and a degree of prestige. Korach should be satisfied with this appointment and not seek further honor and prestige. It is apparent from Moshe’s rebuke, that he suspected Korach’s democratic pronouncements were designed to enlist the support of the nation. He was hiding his true desire within a message he believed would resonate with the people and evoke their sympathy.

Rashi quotes our Sages who explain that Moshe correctly interpreted Korach’s motives. Korach observed that Moshe had assumed the position of ruler and Aharon had been appointed by Moshe as Kohen Gadol – High Priest. He expected – based upon his place within the lineage of his family – to be appointed as its leader. Instead, Moshe selected Elitzafan for this post. This infuriated Korach and resulted in Korach developing and launching a conspiracy whose aim was to unseat Moshe.[1]

And Moshe said: With this you will know that Hashem sent me to perform all of these acts and they are not my initiatives. If in the manner of all men these (men) die and they meet the end common to all humankind, then Hashem did not send me. However, Hashem fashions a creation and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all associated with them, and they descend to the grave still alive, then you will know that these men strive with Hashem. (Sefer BeMidbar 16:28-30)

2. Moshe’s proof of his authenticity
Korach succeeds in developing a following. Included among his followers are Datan and Aviram. Moshe summons Datan and Aviram. They refuse to respond to his summons and instead, imply that Moshe is a fraud. Moshe declares that he was not the source of any of the appointments he had announced. Instead, he was merely acting as Hashem’s prophet and communicating His will. Then, Moshe declares that he will prove this assertion through a miracle. If these rebels die of natural causes, then he – Moshe – is indeed a fraud. However, if Hashem creates a wonder and the “earth opens its mouth” consuming Datan, Aviram and all associated with them, then it will be proven that he is a true prophet. The miracle occurs and Datan and Aviram are destroyed.

The commentators offer differing explanation of the miraculous aspect of this event. They observe that earthquakes do occur naturally and create deep crevices. Apparently, Datan and Aviram were lost into such a crevice. How can this be described as a newly created wonder? Nachmanides suggests that this “opening of the earth’s mouth” should not be understood as a sudden earthquake. The description of the crevice as a “mouth” communicates its unique character. A naturally forming crevice appears and remains in place. We can observe today crevices formed through earthquakes that occurred in past decades or centuries. In this instance, the crevice functioned as a “mouth”. It opened, consumed its victims, and then immediately closed.[2]

3. The ten creations at dusk of the 6th day of creation
Our Sages teach Hashem formed ten creations with the close of the sixth day of creation as it led into the first Shabbat. The first creation on this list is the “mouth” that consumed Datan and Aviram.[3] This teaching of the Sages is not consistent with the impression created by the passages. Our passages indicate that this “mouth” suddenly emerged at Moshe’s prompting. Our Sages seem to be teaching us that this “mouth”, in some form or manner, was formed in the primordial, final moments of creation.

Maimonides explains that the Sages resisted the idea that Hashem interferes with or disregards His natural law. Hashem created a universe that is governed by laws that He fashioned and put in place. Rather than assume that the miracles described in the Torah represent Hashem’s interruption of these laws, the Sages propose that Hashem “programmed” these miracles into nature from the period of creation. For example, our Sages teach that at the time of creation Hashem created the oceans’ waters with the condition that they would split before Bnai Yisrael as they fled from the Egyptians. According to Maimonides, the Sages are suggesting that this miracle was really the unfolding of a series of causes set in motion at the time of creation. This series progressed over the ages and culminated with the splitting of the Reed Sea before Bnai Yisrael.[4],[5]

Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri offers an alternative explanation of the Sages comments. Me’eri notes that the ten creations identified by the Sages are each events, processes, or items that were essential to the spiritual or material development of Bnai Yisrael. For example, included on the list are the mun – the manna – that the nation consumed in the wilderness and the well from which they drew water. These were essential to the survival of the nation in the wilderness. Other items on the list were essential to the spiritual development or survival of the nation. For example the Luchot – the Tablets of the Decalogue – are included on the list. The Luchot – or the experience of Revelation that they represent – are certainly the fundamental basis of Bnai Yisrael’s spiritual existence.

Based on this observation, Me’eri develops his explanation of the Sages comments. The Sages are observing that creation was not an arbitrary, chance event. It was a process with a design and purpose. The objective of creation was to fashion a world that would produce and support a species of beings endowed with the potential and assigned the mission of finding Hashem and His truth. This mission was eventually fulfilled through Bnai Yisrael. Our Sages are suggesting that this design is fundamental to creation. They are not suggesting that at creation any number of series of natural causes was set into motion designed to produce apparent wonders. They are suggesting that, with creation, any future processes, events, or items, essential to the fulfillment of creation’s design and purpose became inevitable. In other words, these processes, events, and items are consequences of the very design of creation.

Me’eri provides an interesting explanation for the inclusion on this list of the “mouth” described in the parasha. According to Me’eri, this mouth demonstrated that the wicked are punished.[6] They are subject to consequences. However, another teaching of the Sages provides an important alternative explanation of the “mouth’s” inclusion.

4. The crisis caused by Korach’s challenge
Midrash Rabba contains a humorous teaching of our Sages concerning Korach’s rebellion. According to the Sages, Korach gathered a number of scholars and with them confronted Moshe with a series of halachic issues to judge. One of these issues suffices to illustrate Korach’s intent. Every Jewish home must have mezuzot on its doorposts. A mezuzah contains a parchment; written upon it are the first two paragraphs of the Shema that we recite each day in our prayers. Korach presented Moshe the following question: Does a home filled with Torah scrolls require a mezuzah on its doorpost? Moshe responded that of course it does. As soon as Moshe gave his response, Korach and his followers began to laugh at Moshe and ridicule him. They declared: If a mezuzah containing two paragraphs of the Torah is adequate to satisfy the requirement of a room, certainly a room full of scrolls containing the entire Torah should not require a mezuzah![7] On a common sense level, Korach’s argument seems compelling. However, it is completely inconsistent with the nature of the Torah’s system of mitzvot and halachah.

What was Korach’s point? He was asserting that every mitzvah has a spiritual purpose and objective. These he readily accepts as Divinely revealed. Every person should strive to embrace and adopt the values and lessons communicated by the commandments. However, Korach rejected the idea of a system of halachah. The “halachic minutia” Korach attributed to Moshe. Korach was suggesting that the mitzvot be stripped of their halachic element and be treated as moral and religious teachings.

This suggests an alternative explanation for the inclusion of the parasha’s “mouth” on the Sages list. The rebellion of Korach occurred during the infancy period of our Torah. Understanding and appreciation of the importance of halachah was not yet clearly established. The idea that the halachah is the fundamental embodiment of every mitzvah and the inseparability of the mitzvah from its halachah was still a novel and innovative idea. Korach attacked this idea and attempted to undermine this fundamental relationship. The wonder of Datan and Aviram’s death demonstrated that Moshe had not invented this relationship. He was teaching the nation the Torah he had received from Hashem.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.
[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:30.
[3] Mesechet Avot 5:8.
[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 2, chapter 29.
[5] Maimonides in his Commentary on the Mishne, suggests that the Sages are disturbed by the prospect of attributing ever-changing and evolving will to Hashem. Hashem is a unity. He had no parts. This precludes the possibility of change in Hashem. Also, because He is a unity, He cannot be separated from His will. Therefore, changing will cannot be attributed to Hashem. It should be noted that although Maimonides develops and carefully explains the position expressed by the Sages in these teachings, he respectfully demurs. He suggests that it is preferable to assume that a miracle represents a temporary suspension of the natural law (Moreh Nevuchim 2:29).
[6] Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri, Bait HaBechirah, Mesechet Avot 5:8.
[7] Midrash Rabba, Sefer BeMidbar 18:1.