Rabbi Jane Kanarek, PhD, is an alumna of the Graduate Fellowship program. She is Assistant Professor of Rabbinics in the rabbinical school of Hebrew College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Korah and his faction have a point. God has proclaimed the whole Israelite people to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). Why then do Moses and Aaron exalt themselves above the community? God is amongst them all. Korah seems to speak on behalf of the entire people with a vision of a more egalitarian society. Yet, as we know, the rebels are swallowed up by the earth and consumed by fire. Moses and Aaron do retain their leadership positions. In the eyes of the sages, Korah and his faction become the paradigmatic example of un-heavenly conflict. Examining this rebellion provides us with the opportunity to look at different pictures of a civil order. What are some possibilities for understanding Korah’s rebellion and what can these teach us about leadership?
When Moses answers Korah’s accusation, he chastises Korah for seeking the priesthood for his family. Korah is a Levite, a member of the same tribe as Moses and Aaron. However, within the Levite tribe, only Aaron and his direct descendants will be priests. While Korah will serve in the Tabernacle, he is excluded from the priesthood and thus God’s most direct service. Moses does not believe Korah truly seeks equality for all Israel. Instead, Korah wants to raise the Levites alone to priestly status.
The midrash Tanhuma views Korah’s rebellion in even more particular terms. Korah’s genealogy is as follows: Korah is the son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi. Kehat had four sons. In order of age, they are: Amram, Yitzhar, Hevron, and Uziel. Amram had two sons: Moses and Aaron. Aaron merits the High Priesthood and Moses kingship. As the son of the second-born, Korah reasons that the next highest office should be his. Instead, Moses makes Uziel’s son the head of the Kehat clan. Having been passed over in favor of the youngest son, Korah angrily declares he will dispute whatever Moses says.
Making good on his word, Korah mocks two laws – tekhelet, the blue thread that the Torah requires as one of the four threads that are used for tsitsit, and mezuzah. Korah tells Moses that it is ridiculous that a tallit made completely from tekhelet, an entirely blue tallit, is not exempt from the requirement that of tsistit. He also tells Moses that if a house is full of books, it should be exempt from the requirement of mezuzah. The entire Torah has 275 sections and it doesn’t exempt the house, but the two sections that are in a mezuzah do?! These laws, Korah proclaims, are so ridiculous that they couldn’t have been commanded by God. Rather, Moses invented them!
The commentator R. Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz (1550-1619), known as the Keli Yakar, makes an insightful point about this midrash. He says that Korah is not only challenging the seeming absurdity of these laws. Rather, Korah implies that just as a completely blue tallit should not need tsitsit and a house full of books shouldn’t need an individual mezuzah, so too a community where everyone is holy shouldn’t need an individual leader.
The Hasidic commentator Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the Kedushat Levi, moves in a different direction. He argues that when Korah wanted everyone to be priests, he really wanted the world to function entirely under the quality of compassion, hesed. However, in truth, the world needs both priests, people of compassion, and levites, people of judgment, in order to function.
When Korah opens his rebellion with a claim for societal equality, Moses advocates for a stratified society, where certain roles are pre-ordained. The Tanhuma, however, reminds us that a person’s status is not necessarily pre-determined by birth. We should not assume we merit a certain position solely through the fortune of good birth. The Keli Yakar’s interpretation – that Korah protests the necessity of any leader – advocates for the importance of leadership. A leaderless society will not cohere. Finally, the Kedushat Levi reminds us that good leadership necessitates judgment alongside compassion.