Parshat Korach: What Was In It For Datan and Aviram?

“And Korach the son of Yitzhar the son of Kahat the son of Leyve separated himself, together with Datan and Aviram the sons of Ahaliav and Ohn the son of Pelet, the sons of Reuven.” (BeMidbar 16:1)

Korach initiated a dispute with Moshe regarding the leadership of Bnai Yisrael. Rashi explains that Korach was motivated by personal ambitions. Moshe had appointed Elisafan the son of Uziel as prince of the family of Kahat. Korach believed that he should have received this honor.[1] Datan, Aviram and Ohn were not involved in this issue. They did not have this personal motivation to join the dispute. Why did they become involved?

Bnai Yisrael camped in the wilderness in accordance with a specific order. The Shevet – tribe – of Reuven camped adjacent to the family of Kahat. This proximity encouraged close relations between these neighbors. Korach developed a following among members of the Shevet of Reuven. Rashi summarizes this phenomenon with the statement, “Woe to the evil doer and woe to his neighbor”.[2]

Rashi seems to maintain that the members of Shevet Reuven were not, by nature, evil. They were influenced by the attitudes of their neighbors. It is interesting that the good qualities of Shevet Reuven did not have a positive influence upon Korach and his followers among the family of Kahat.

Furthermore, the Shevet of Reuven was adjacent to the family of Kahat on one side. On other sides the Shevet was next to tribes that were not inclined to join Korach’s rebellion. Yet, the positive role models among their other neighbors did not guide these members of Shevet Reuven.

It seems that Rashi maintains that the power of evil to corrupt is greater than the influence of the good to motivate righteous behavior. Every person must struggle to achieve human perfection. Although material instincts pull us toward evil, we can overcome this influence. However, we can never completely eradicate the instinctual component of our personality. We can never assume we are beyond the desire to sin. We can only hope to control our tendency towards evil. The desire remains deep within our personality. The desire to do good is apparently more tentative. It requires the conquest of the intellectual and spiritual over the more basic instinctual. This process is a lifelong struggle. Even in a righteous individual some level of conflict remains.

Rashi’s analysis can now be more fully understood. When evil confronts good it is easier for the evil to exert influence over the good. The evildoer has less conflict. The righteous individual lives with conflict. The evil person encourages a return to the instinctual desires. The righteous person is now confronted with a growing internal battle. Sometimes he or she succumbs to the evil desires.

Rashi urges us to choose our neighbors well. We should not assume they will not influence us. Instead we should adopt the premise that we will be influenced and choose neighbors whose influence will be positive.

“And Moshe became very angry. He said to Hashem, ‘Do not accept their offering. I did not take a single donkey from them! I did not do harm to any of them.” (BeMidbar 16:15)

Moshe continues to attempt to make peace with Korach and his followers. He sends a messenger to Datan and Aviram. These are two of the leaders of the rebellion. He wishes to meet with them. Datan and Aviram refuse the offer. Instead, they lash-out at Moshe. They raise new issues. Moshe has failed to fulfill his promise to take them to a land flowing with milk and honey. The generation that Moshe brought out from Egypt has been condemned to die in the wilderness. Furthermore, Moshe has made himself ruler over the nation.

Our pasuk describes Moshe’s reaction. Moshe becomes angry. He prays to Hashem. He asks Hashem not to accept the offerings of Korach and his followers. Finally, he declares that he has not deprived anyone of his property. He has not wronged anyone.

There are two problems with Moshe’s comments. First, Moshe seems to be defending himself. He seems to feel that he needs to prove that he has not been despotic. Why is Moshe defending his integrity? Second, Moshe begins his defense by observing that he has not deprived anyone of personal property. This seems to be an odd defense. Moshe seems to be defending himself by asserting that he is not a thief! This does not prove he has not assumed unwarranted authority.

In order to understand Moshe’s comments, some background is needed. In fact, Moshe did have the status of a king. He was the temporal ruler of Bnai Yisrael.[3] As king, Moshe did have the right to confiscate private property for his own use.[4] Now, we can begin to understand Moshe’s comments. He was not asserting that he was not a thief. He was declaring that he had not exercised his rights as king. He had not practiced his right of confiscation.

Why did Moshe feel compelled to defend the beneficence of his leadership? Datan and Aviram had challenged Moshe’s leadership. Moshe realized that there were two possible causes for this rebellion. The first possibility was that Datan and Aviram could not accept anyone’s leadership. They were simply unwilling to submit to any leader. The second possibility was that his own behavior had evoked their response. Perhaps, unintentionally, he had been overbearing.

Moshe decided to test the issue. He humbled himself before Datan and Aviram. He attempted to appease them. If Datan and Aviram rejected this overture, Moshe would know that his actions had not produced this dispute. Such a reaction would indicate that even the most unobtrusive leadership would not be tolerated.

Datan and Aviram immediately rejected Moshe’s appeal. Now, Moshe knew with certainty that he had not caused this rebellion. This is the meaning of Moshe’s comments. Moshe is asserting that he has been not been an overbearing leader. He has not even exercised the rights of a king. Therefore, he is not responsible for this rebellion. Korach, Datan and Aviram will not accept any leader.

“This is what you should do. Take for yourself fire-plates – Korach and his assembly.” (BeMidbar 16:6)

What was the issue raised by Korach and his followers? As we have explained, they disputed Moshe’s right to make appointments to the priesthood. However, at a deeper level Korach and his followers questioned the entire institution of priesthood. Korach argued that the entire nation was sacred. The priesthood should not be bestowed upon a single family. Instead, it should be distributed more evenly within Bnai Yisrael. Moshe rejected this argument. He insisted that the priesthood belongs exclusively to Ahron and his descendants.

What was wrong with Korach’s argument? Why does Bnai Yisrael have Kohanim? Why cannot any individual assume the role of Kohen? Rashi deals with this issue. He explains that there is a fundamental difference between the Torah and heathen religions. The heathens have many alternative practices. They have various priests. They worship in numerous temples. In contrast, the Torah insists upon a single law. There is one Mikdash – Temple. There is a single Kohen Gadol.[5]

Rashi’s response requires further explanation. Rashi identifies a fundamental difference between the Torah and heathen practices. However, he does not explain the reason for this difference. Why does the Torah insist on a single Mikdash and one Kohen Gadol? Why does the Torah not allow for the diversity accommodated by other religions?

The answer is that the Torah proposes a unique approach to Divine service. Heathen religion is essentially an expression of the worshipper. The mode of service is derived from the personal needs of the worshipper. The worshipper designs the service in a manner that is personally meaningful. This results in remarkable diversity. Different cultures produce their own religious expressions and modes of worship. This is because each culture is unique and seeks to express religious feelings in an individual manner.

The Torah does not treat worship as an expression of the needs of the worshiper. Instead, Torah worship involves submission to the will of the Almighty. Worship is not designed to respond to the needs of the worshiper. It is a response to the will of Hashem.

The Torah approach implies that there must be unity of worship. Diversity in Divine service is inappropriate. All Jews submit to a single G-d. This Deity has a single will. Therefore, all Jews must worship in a single manner. There cannot be multiple Temples expressing various versions of worship. Neither can there be various High Priests each proposing his own form of worship. There is a single Torah, one Mikdash and one Kohen Gadol.

“And it was on the following day and Moshe entered the Tent of Testimony. And it was that Ahron’s staff representing the house of Leyve had blossomed. And it had brought forth blossoms and then unripe fruit and then almonds.” (BeMidbar 17:23)

Hashem commanded Moshe to collect a staff from the prince of each tribe. Ahron’s staff represented the Shevet of Leyve. These staffs were then placed in the Mishcan. The following day Ahron’s staff blossomed and bore fruit. This miracle indicated that Ahron was truly the Kohen appointed by the Almighty.

Korach’s rebellion had already ended. He and his followers had been destroyed through a series of miracles. Why was further proof of Ahron’s authenticity needed?

One explanation is that there were two elements in Korach’s rebellion. First, Korach and his followers rebelled against Moshe’s authority. The manner in which they protested the appointment of the Kohanim – the priests – was inappropriate. They did not question Moshe in a respectful manner. They denied his authority and encouraged anarchy. Second, they had questioned the concept of priesthood. The destruction of Korach and his followers indicated that their approach had been sinful. However the question of the legitimacy of the priesthood had not been dealt with fully. The people could mistakenly assume that Korach and his camp were punished for their rebellious attitude. There would remain doubts regarding the position of the Kohanim.

The miracle of Ahron’s staff responded to this possible doubt. Through this sign, Hashem confirmed the legitimacy of Ahron and the Kohanim.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer

Shemot 30:13; Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 36:31;

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 33:5.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot

Melachim 4:1.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.

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