Korach: Bald Demands

June 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Korach | 1 Comment

Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi, took— along with Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On, son of Pelet, descendants of Reuben—  men from the children of Israel, 250 leaders of the assembly, well-known men of high reputation; and they rose up before Moses.  They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them:  You have too much for yourselves!  Because all the assembly, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst; so why do you make yourselves leaders over the congregation of God?  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 16:1-3)

Korach = shaven bald; icy

At first glance, Korach’s demand for power-sharing seems reasonable.  By this time, Moses has delegated authority for administration and judging cases to 70 elders, delegated religious rituals to the priests (Aaron and two surviving sons), and delegated most of the disassembly and reassembly of the portable sanctuary to the tribe of Levi.  But Moses remains God’s only mouthpiece, passing on all the instructions and laws he receives from God.  If the people don’t do what God says, through Moses, God punishes them.

Yet, Korach argues, God is in the midst of the people, and we are all holy.  Why do we have to take all our orders from Moses, when God can communicate directly with each of us?  And when we need leaders, why can’t we choose our own?

Korach recruits a few leading malcontents from the tribe of Reuben, and 250 “leaders of the assembly” who want some of the power to create laws and to decide what the people will do next.  In a democracy, they would be running for public office.  But the government of the Israelites is more like a dictatorship, and the visible dictator is not God, but Moses.

The Torah gives us clues that the motivations of Korach, the ringleader of the revolt, are more complicated.  First let’s look at Korach’s lineage.

Korach is a Levite from the clan of Kehat, and a first cousin of Moses and Aaron.  If Aaron’s sons get to be priests, why shouldn’t he?  Furthermore, the job of the Kehatites is to transport the holiest objects in the sanctuary, even the ark itself—but only after the priests have covered them with wrappings.  Only Aaron and his sons are allowed to see the holy of holies.  (See my blog, “Bemidbar: Don’t Look”.)

An ordinary Israelite might prefer not to risk death by looking at the holiest and most dangerous objects in the sanctuary.  But Korach is already carrying these objects, well-wrapped; he is closely related to the priests; and he believes he is as holy as Aaron.  Why should he be denied even a glimpse of the ark?

We can find more clues in Korach’s name.  Korach means the one shaven bald, or the icy one.

The Torah warns the Israelites not to shave bald patches on their heads as a sign of mourning, like other Canaanite peoples.  (However, a non-Israelite woman captured in battle gets to shave her head and mourn her parents for a month before her captor can marry her.)  Israelites  shaved their heads only as part of a  long purification ritual, done for one of three reasons:

1)  To re-enter the community and its religious life after recovery from a skin disease called tzara-at.   According to the Talmud, people were stricken with tzara-at as a punishment for evil speech.  Perhaps Korach had whispered against Moses and Aaron earlier, and in this week’s portion he has recovered and been purified.

2) To officially end a man or woman’s term as a nazir.  A nazir  vows to let their hair grow wild and abstain from all wine and grapes for a certain period.  Korach might have taken the vow for a while to distinguish himself as an especially spiritual, but found that being a nazir was not enough for him.

3)  As part of the ritual of consecration for both priests and Levites, when they commenced their service in the sanctuary.   All the adult Levite men were shaven and consecrated in the wilderness of Sinai (Numbers/ Bemidbar 8:7) so their service could begin.  At the time of Korach’s revolt, the people have moved to the wilderness of Paran, and the Levites’ hair has had time to grow out.  But maybe Korach shaved a second time to demonstrate that he expected to be consecrated as a priest!

He accuses Moses and Aaron of making themselves leaders—because he is trying to make himself a leader.

Korach has a second meaning.  Since kerach means ice, the name Korach also means “one who is icy”.  In Genesis 31:40, Jacob refers to being exposed to “consuming heat by day, and ice (kerach) by night”.

Fire is a frequent metaphor for God in the Torah, and moments of fiery passion characterize those who serve God.  But Korach is icy; he doesn’t understand fire, and he doesn’t understand God.  That’s why he accuses Moses and Aaron of making themselves leaders over the congregation, when in fact God chose them, and they agreed only with reluctance.  That’s why Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of having “too much”; he doesn’t understand that the ability to converse with God isn’t a material thing you can acquire.  And that’s why Korach says everyone in the assembly is holy; he sees holiness as a legal right which God conferred on the children of Israel back at Mount Sinai.

Here’s what God actually said:  You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation … (Exodus 19:6).  You will be holy because I am holy …  (Leviticus 19:2)

God did not say that the people were already holy.  And God gave rules for good behavior along with both predictions of holiness.  Holiness is a calling and a goal, not an entitlement.  And God chose to use Moses to transmit the rules for behavior that will bring the people closer to holiness.

If the Israelites had a different mission, Korach’s icy alienation from God wouldn’t matter.  If all they needed to do was settle down and accumulate material wealth, Korach’s demands could be rephrased as reasonable, even utopian, requests:  Share the wealth.  Let each individual follow their own intuition.  To the extent that leaders are needed, choose leaders by democratic election.

But the Israelites have a higher calling; they are to dedicate their whole selves to serving God.  This mission requires fire, not ice.  It requires leaders with humility, who don’t indulge in the outward signs of purification (in those days, shaving).  It requires people who are willing to work all their lives to improve their behavior, to  become more holy, to keep their eyes open for a glimpse of God in everything, and to accept that they don’t have to see the holy of holies to be important.

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  1. […] “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt,” the Israelites say in last week’s Torah portion. In this week’s portion, Korach, the Israelites accept that they will never go back to Egypt. But some of them do choose a new leader: Korach, a Levite and a cousin of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Korach argues that all the people are holy, so they should all have the same rights as Moses and Aaron. He sounds like an egalitarian, but his real agenda is to seize power for himself. (See my earlier blog, Korach: Bald Demands.) […]


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