And Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Leyve, with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and Ohn, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuven, took men and they rose up before of Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men. They were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown. And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them: You take too much upon you. For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Hashem is among them, why lift up yourselves above the assembly of Hashem? (Sefer BeMidbar 15:1-3)
1. The role of the tribe of Reuven in the Korach rebellion
Parshat Korech discusses the Korech rebellion. Korech was a member of the tribe – the shevet – of Leyve. He had aspired to be the kohen gadol – the high priest – or to be appointed to some other position of authority. He realized that he would not be appointed to any of these positions. In response, he instigated a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. He succeeded in attracting followers. A large portion of these were members of the shevet of Reuven.
What attracted members of Shevet Reuven to join Korach? Our Sages present a number of suggestions. Rashi explains that in the wilderness the encampment of the clan of Shevet Leyve to which Korach belonged was adjacent to Shevet Reuven. Rashi’s comment suggests that this incident should impress upon us the impact of our social environment upon our attitudes and behaviors. The members of Shevet Reuven were exposed to ongoing instigation against Moshe and Aharon. With time, this disgruntlement was incorporated into their own outlook. So, when Korach launched his rebellion, these members of Shevet Reuven fell into line behind Korach. Extended exposure led to their internalization of Korach’s values. They believed that he was fighting their own fight.
Others note that Shevet Reuven had its own reasons for feeling excluded from the perceived aristocracy of the nation. Reuven, their ancestor, was the first born of Yaakov. In ancient societies the first born was regarded as the most significant of the father’s progeny. Yet, the priesthood had been awarded to Aharon and his descendants. A double portion in the land had been awarded to the descendants of Yosef and not to those of Reuven. These complaints suggest that they might also have been disgruntled over Shevet Yehudah’s election to kingship and by the creation of a leadership of elders selected from all of the tribes. Every position of authority or esteem to which Shevet Reuven could aspire had been assigned to some other shevet or group.
2. The tribe of Reuven felt sympathetic for Korach
An interesting question arises regarding the members of Shevet Reuven who joined Korach’s rebellion. Did they actually assume that their complaints were valid? As Nachmanides observes, it is difficult to believe that they opposed Moshe because a double portion in the Land of Israel was awarded to the descendants of Yosef. Moshe had not transferred this privilege of the firstborn son to Yosef. Yaakov had made this decision. All of the complaints of Shevet Reuven seem to be examples of “sour grapes” rather than actionable complaints.
Although their complaints may not have been actionable, they did influence these members of Shevet Reuven. Because of their various perceived injuries the members of the shevet were sympathetically disposed to the protests of Korach. When Korach objected that he and other members of his shevet had been passed over for positions of authority or prestige, members from the tribe of Reuven felt deeply their pain and frustration. They harbored similar feelings of rejection and victimization. They identified with Korach and embraced his crusade. They felt that they were brothers in a just fight to redress a terrible injustice.
3. The challenge of monitoring one’s own objectivity
Viewing the incident in this manner, an important lesson regarding human nature and behavior emerges. Shevet Reuven had accepted its place within the nation. It understood that it could not be changed. However, acceptance did not translate into contentment. The intellectual acceptance was accompanied by a hidden resentment. This resentment predisposed these members of Shevet Reuven to being co-opted into Korach’s rebellion.
The student of the Torah can have two responses to this incident. The student can view the behaviors of these members of Shevet Reuven as aberrant. This reader assesses the behavior of this group as atypical and motivated by a unique set of circumstances. A strange coincidence arose between Korach’s message and resentments harbored in the hearts of these individuals. If interpreted in this manner, the account has little practical significance. It is essentially an account of an unusual event in our ancient history.
Alternatively, the student can realize that the Torah’s account speaks to the challenge that every person faces in judging the objectivity of one’s own decisions. Every person has hidden passions, resentments, and hurts. We each have feelings that are difficult to acknowledge and reside in that obscured area of our minds barely accessible to our consciousness. Can we be sure that important decisions that we make are not influenced by these feelings?
Yehoshua the son of Perachyah said: Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a colleague. Be accustomed to judge each person favorably. (Tractate Avot 1:6)
4. Seeking the counsel of the wise
Our Sages questioned the capacity of the individual to judge of one’s own objectivity. The mishne in Tractate Avot teaches that a person should appoint for oneself a teacher and acquire a friend or confidant. Commenting on this teaching, Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri notes that even a scholar who cannot find a colleague whose knowledge and wisdom surpasses his own must appoint for himself a teacher. What is the role of this teacher who is the lesser of the scholars? Me’eri explains that this teacher provides his student with objective feedback. Me’eri points out that even the wisest king needs advisors to critique his decisions and policies.
The comments of the Sages provide us with invaluable advice. We should not trust our own decisions to be objective. We should beware of the possibility that we are guided by hidden passions or resentments. We should learn from the behavior of these members of Shevet Reuven that we too can make important decisions based upon influences of which we are barely aware. But we have recourse. We can consult with a mentor who can objectively critique our decision.
5. Not being hasty
There is a relevant story told about Rav Chaim of Volozhin and his teacher the Gaon of Vilna. Rav Chaim established the famous yeshiva of Volozhin which became one of the most prominent institutions of Torah learning in modern times. His decision to devote himself to his vision of creating this institution was the result of countless hours of careful evaluation. However, before finalizing his decision and acting on his vision, he consulted his teacher the Gaon.
He traveled to Vilna and passionately shared with the Gaon his vision and his plans. The Gaon listened carefully but refused to provide Rav Chaim with feedback.
Rav Chaim departed assuming that his teacher had some hesitancy that prevented him from endorsing the initiative. Rav Chaim reconsidered his plans. He carefully studied his objectives and the suitability of the institution he envisions for meeting these objectives. After carefully reconsidering his plan and confident of its soundness, he again traveled to his teacher. Again, he calmly and systematically explained to the Goan his plan and his reasons for undertaking this initiative.
This time the Gaon immediately agreed with Rav Chaim’s plan. This was not the response Rav Chaim expected. Astounded, he asked his teacher what had caused his previous hesitancy to be replaced by eager approval. The Gaon explained that Rav Chaim’s original presentation was impassioned. This suggested to him that Rav Chaim – moved by his deep passion – might not have carefully considered his plans, their advisability and feasibility. This time he presented his proposal calmly and systematically. His dispassionate presentation suggested to the Goan that the plan was well formulated and thorough.
The Goan recognized that our passions are part of our wiring. They do influence our thinking and actions. Sometimes we are not aware of this influence. Therefore, his initial unstated message to Rav Chaim was to slow down, calm down, and conduct a dispassionate analysis of his plans. Even Rav Chaim – a world class scholar and intensely righteous person – was human and capable of being subtly misled by hidden motives. The Goan played the role recommended of the teacher in Tractate Avot.
 Midrash Rabbah BeMidbar 18:16.  Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelymah vol 11, p 11.  Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 16:2.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.  Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri, Bait HaBechirah, Mesechet Avot 1:6.  Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim on Pirke Avot, pp. 380-381.