Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer

If you are an habitué of committee meetings, you might be familiar with the quip that a meeting is something ‘where they take minutes but it lasts for hours.’ The Reform Siddur actually has a prayer for committee meetings.1 It is not, as we might think (or hope!) “Please God, let it be a short and unacrimonious meeting!” but for a meeting “where we listen to each other with kindness and decency.” It goes on to hope that “none of our controversies rise up like those of Korach, from ambition and self-seeking. Let them only be for the sake of heaven, like those of Hillel and Shammai.”

Poor Korach – he certainly gets a bad press in the Torah and in subsequent Jewish teaching. He’s been demonised, made into the exemplar of the arrogant, ambitious, self-seeker after power. He challenges the authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron on spurious grounds. Finally he and his followers are swallowed up when the ground opens under them. And yet, later on, we read that Korach’s sons survived the catastrophe 2; indeed some went on to have Psalms ascribed to them.3 

The fact that a trace, as it were, of Korach survives leaves us with the suggestion that he wasn’t entirely wrong in his claim. Last Shabbat, the spies and the people wanted to return to Egypt – calling into very question the divine plan. Last Shabbat it was bad enough that tribal leaders were the troublemakers; this time it’s even worse: an attempted ‘palace coup’ because Korach is Moses’ cousin, he’s mishpocheh. It’s very close to home and it’s often unseemly and unsettling for people to see their leaders squabbling publicly. At the time of writing, Michael Gove and Theresa May have not just been washing dirty educational linen in public but hanging it out to dry, as it were, in full view, while one of Michael Gove’s advisors has publicly criticised the Prime Minister. Korach’s challenge demonstrates how sensitive establishments and leaders are to questioning and criticism.

Our sidra begins with Hebrew which is dense and cryptic. Vayikach Korach “and Korach took” but we’re not told what he took. Rav lachem, he says to Moses, “you have gone too far. All the congregation are holy and God is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above God’s community?” 4 His real question is clear: “why should you and Aaron hold all the authority and power to yourselves?”

As usual, midrash elaborates on the terseness of the Torah account in a marvellously-imaginative way. One even has Korach suggesting that God was ‘invented’ by Moses as a useful device to legitimate his, Moses’, authority.5 

Midrash connects Korach’s rebellion with the final verses of last Shabbat’s sidra. It’s the 3rd paragraph of the Shema, about putting tsitsit, fringes on the corners of our garments, with a thread of blue among them. “A tallit has to have a thread of blue. So if,” Korach asks provocatively, “I have a completely blue tallit, do I still need a special blue fringe?!” On another occasion he asks Moses, “A Torah scroll contains the text we have in a mezuzah. So if I have a lot of Torah scrolls in my house, do I still need a mezuzah on the door?” (No, don’t even ask how the Israelites in the desert had mezuzzot!)6 

Korach raises apparent contradictions to see if Moses can answer them. And this, presumably, to cast doubts on Moses’ leadership skills. And with his claim that all the community are holy, he’s accusing Moses of going too far in the exercise of his authority. Rav lachem “you’ve exceeded the limits.”

Moses organises a leadership contest, throws the gauntlet down to Korach with a test for him and his supporters. He accuses them of doing just what Korach has accused him of. He even uses the same phrase rav lachem, “you take too much on yourself.”7  You’ve exceeded the limits, not me.” Anyway, in good Biblical fashion, the rebels fail the test, the grounds opens and swallows them up.8

Conclusive proof, then, that Korach was wrong – or is it? I’m intrigued that some of his family survive.

But what are the limits? Korach apparently wanted to democratise religious leadership. It shouldn’t all be in your hands, he tells Moses. Most of the commentaries say that the problem with Korach is that his motives weren’t pure. His branch of the Levi family hadn’t been chosen to be priests.9  He felt slighted and angry and wanted power for himself. It would be too blatant to put it like that, so he dresses it up, presenting himself as the champion of the people against an entrenched establishment. Whatever justice or truth there might have been in his claim, it wasn’t l’shem shamayim, literally ‘for the sake of heaven.’ He was motivated primarily by self-interest – and that was his misdemeanour.

Is that why Korach family, his name, isn’t completely lost and wiped out? His questions might be hard ones, and even if they are motivated by self-interest, they might still be valid ones and worth preserving.

For what is his claim? Surely we’re all holy. Where does religious authority lie? Maybe the midrash has Korach ask his nonsensical questions about tsitsit and mezuzah not to mock Moses’ authority but to remind him, Moses, not to lose sight of the broader vision.

At one level, Korach’s ‘sin,’ if that is the right word, was to say that all the community are holy. We are indeed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation – but we’re not there yet. Korach claimed that future potential was actually current reality. We are to be holy – but we’re not there yet. His was a sort of religious complacency, very dangerous because it means you believe you’ve arrived, you are holy, and there’s no need for continued striving to reach some degree of holiness that may well always be unattainable.

In that prayer for committee meetings, Korach is contrasted with Hillel and Shammai. They disagreed with each other, often very fundamentally, yet managed to do what that prayer counsels and “listen to each other with kindness and respect.” They stayed talking, despite their differences, never accusing the other of being misguided, ignorant or stupid. They both felt passionately about their point of view. Yet they could recognise that no one person holds the truth, that truth is not black and white, either/or, and much more elusive than we think. The rabbis phrased it thus, eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayyim “these and these are the words of the living God.”

May that prayer and that spirit of eilu v’eilu guide us in our communities as we debate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’?; who has the ‘correct’ view on Israel or on the direction our religious lives should be heading. We will be a holy nation, but we’re not quite there yet!


  1Forms of Prayer 8th edition (2008) page 366
  2Numbers 26:11
  3eg Psalm 42
  4Numbers 16:3
  5Numbers Rabbah 18:10
  6Tanchuma, Korach 4; Numbers Rabbah 18:3
  7Numbers 16:7
  8Numbers 16:32
  9Tanchuma Korach 3

Rabbi Colin Eimer
Sha’arei Tsedek, North London Reform Synagogue
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1971




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