Thursday, 27 Jun 2019

Written by Anthony Lazarus Magrill

This fourth book of Torah is full of communal disputes and disruptions inside the Israelite camp. Two weeks ago, in Beha’alotcha, we saw rebellion break out twice; there it was about Miriam and Aaron questioning Moses’s authority, and the children of Israel crying out over not having any meat to eat. Last week, in Shelach Lecha we read about the 12 spies for whose dishonest account of the Land of Israel the entire nation was punished with plague. And this week we learn of the rebellion of Korach, who accuses Moses of taking on too much authority, of ruling the Israelite camp like a demagogue. Korach led a 250 strong rebellion of Levites who wished to serve in the Holy Mishkan. In punishment, every one of these 250 men, their whole family and everything they owned, were swallowed up by the earth. One theme which strikingly brings these stories of rebellion together is family and, perhaps especially, family rivalries. It was, of course, Freud, who first perceived the crises of modernity within the vexed ‘family romance’ of his own Jewish family. And here we read about Moses, the upstart youngest child, challenged by elder siblings who could not tolerate either his strong-handed leadership, or his choice of wife. And last week, why were the 12 spies sent in such great numbers to survey the land of Israel? It was because the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel could not stand the prospect of their siblings and cousins from other tribes being better, or disproportionately represented in any Divine task. Two great rebellions within the Israelite camp, both inspired by the basic fact that it is hard for siblings to get along. I don’t say that light-heartedly – for some of us, getting on with our siblings will be the hardest thing we ever do. The sin of the 12 spies, our Midrash teaches, resulted from this basic lack of Achdus, brotherhood, amongst the Children of Israel.


The crime of the followers of Korach was subtly different. It arose from their desire for the Kehunah, the Priesthood. Korach was himself a Levi, and therefore already privileged to serve in the Temple. What, then, did he want with this rebellion? Here too, the Midrash teaches, we find the crises of sibling rivalry, although the family tree is a little more complicated. Moses and Aaron’s father, Amram, was the eldest of the four sons of Kohath, the son of Levi. Korach, though, was a child of Kohath’s 2nd son, Yitzhar. Korach assumed that when Moses came to appoint a Chief of the Clan of Kohathites, it would then be Korach’s due, his birth right, to be a chief: Amram’s sons already had their positions of leadership. How much he was disappointed, then, when he learned that Moses had given that task of chief of the family clan to another cousin – Elizaphan – who was only a son of Kohath’s youngest son, Uzziel.

Korach was first roused to rebellion because Moses failed to respect the balance of power between siblings. Still, even when the rebellion has started, Moses challenges Korach: Rav lachem b’nei Levi, You have taken too much upon yourselves, Sons of Levi. Moses tries to warn the followers of Korach that they face desperate consequences if they persevere. How could Korach disregard such advice?

Well, Rashi brings an answer from the Midrash which, again, points back to stresses within the family unit:

And Korach, who was intelligent, what could possibly have made him pursue this foolishness? Korach had a vision, which he believed was from God, in which he saw a great chain of his descendants, including the prophet Samuel equal in stature and holiness to Moses and himself. And he saw 24 of his descendants serving as Levi’im in the Holy Temple.

He believed that if his children were so special, so important, then there had to be merit in his cause. Of course this is always one of the treacheries of parenting – to assume that having one’s beautiful children is, in some sense, enough; enough contribution; enough justification. I’m asking you to invest in a narrative; this story I want to tell about one of the Torah’s most complex characters. Our Rabbis believe that Korach’s is basically a story about sibling rivalry, and the particular illusions and neuroses of family life. It is those ties—those traumas—of family, which construct who we are.

We read this week’s Parashah and we might think, why Korach? But our tradition answers with, perhaps, the best conceivable answer as to how an individual could become so misguided, so set in their ways, so and difficult. Sadly, it’s a family thing.

Korach began to carry his great and destructive resentment because he did not feel Moses was treating him fairly next to his cousin Elizaphan. Howsoever we try, it is these horizontal relationships in our family which often can cause most hurt. We feel, despite our best intentions, rivalry, and competition, with our siblings and cousins because that is how we are hard wired to be; it makes perfect evolutionary sense. That we should live with these difficult or ugly emotions next to our peers within the family, is not to suggest that we do not love, or even like them; it is to teach that these are relationships of difficulty and we must work at them. Would that we could learn, as Korach did not, that a happy relationship with one’s peers is one in which we accept those rules which may not always seem fair, because we can trust that those looking after us have only our best interests at heart. Additionally, the challenge of Rashi’s Korach, facing down the generations, is one which presses on all who engage with parenting in any sense: to find joy in our children, whilst maintaining space for ourselves; to live with our children, rather than through them or their accomplishments. In Korach we have a model of the most difficult kind of family, leading to the worst kind of consequences, both for this complicated individual and for his nation.

May we do better.

Anthony Lazarus Magrill LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.