Korach (Numbers 16-18 )
The tragic story of Korach teaches us vital lessons about how even great people can come to commit grave sins through subtle character flaws. An analysis of the main protagonists of Korach’s rebellion shows that they were all righteous people who had seemingly valid motives for their rebellion against Moshe. Yet on a small level, they were in fact influenced by their biases that caused them to sin in a major way.
Korach himself was evidently on a very high level: The Midrash1 describes him as being very wise and on the level to merit to carry the Holy Ark. Rashi2 teaches that he was so great that he even received a form of Prophecy! All this begs the question of how he could come to the heretical belief that Moshe made up parts of the Torah and cause such major damage to the Jewish people? The Rabbis explain that Korach, through Prophecy, saw that he would have extremely righteous descendants, including the Prophet, Shmuel. This convinced him that he would come through the rebellion unscathed and was therefore justified in his actions. His error was that his chain of descendants came in the merit of his sons who repented for their involvement in the rebellion. Yet Korach was so confident in the correctness of his actions that when he offered the incense, he was sure that God would accept his offering and not that of Aaron. Thus, it is clear that he genuinely believed he was correct in his claims, and that he believed he was acting purely for the sake of Heaven.
The two hundred and fifty Elders who joined the rebellion are also described as great tzaddikim, many of whom were Princes of their Tribes. The Netsiv3 explains that they had essentially pure motives, and desired to attain greater closeness to God by partaking in the service of the Kohanim. The Netsiv goes so far as to argue that they realized that they would actually die for doing this service but were willing to give up their lives in order to attain this perceived extra ‘closeness’ to God. The Netsiv also compares them to Nadav and Avihu, who also desired greater closeness to God.
Another member of the rebellion was On Ben Peles. He is mentioned at the beginning of the Parsha as being one of the ringleaders of the rebellion, yet his name disappears from the story, as he later stepped away from the dispute. The Chiddushei Lev4 notes that he had ostensibly pure motives. He cites the Talmud that makes a number of homiletical interpretations based on his description as “On Ben Peles, Bnei Reuven”.5 The Talmud teaches that his name ‘On’ alludes to the fact that he said ‘b’aninut – ‘in mourning’ – Rashi explains that this means that he was in mourning as repentance for his initial involvement in the rebellion.6 Rashi continues to say that the word ‘Reuven’ alludes to the fact that ‘hu ra’ah v’heivin’ – ‘he saw and understood’ that Korach’s behavior was not correct, and therefore separated from his assembly.
We have seen how all the participants in the rebellion had ostensibly righteous motives. Yet, it is self-evident that had they been totally acting for the sake of Heaven, it would have been impossible for them to come to such a grievous sin. Indeed, on deeper analysis, it is clear that they were all affected by subtle negative character traits that greatly distorted their behavior.
With regard to Korach, the Rabbis reveal the underlying motive for his lofty arguments that Moshe had grabbed too much power and that all the people were holy. Korach’s father, Yitzhar, was the second son of Kehat, after Amram. Amram’s son, Moshe, was chosen to be the leader of the Jewish people, and Aaron was appointed Kohen Gadol. Korach, being the eldest son of Yitzhar, expected to be appointed the Prince of the Tribe of Levi, yet he was overlooked and Elitsaphan was chosen. His father, Uziel, was the youngest of the four sons of Kehat. Korach felt that this was unfair, and this prompted him to attack Moshe. Thus, we see that beneath his self-righteous arguments, Korach was plagued by the base traits of jealousy and desire for honor.
The two hundred and fifty Elders who rebelled were largely from the tribe of Reuven. Korach persuaded them to rebel against Moshe with the argument that Reuven was the first-born, and therefore his tribe should merit the Priesthood. Despite their apparent desire for closeness to God, it seems that they too were afflicted by the traits of jealousy and desire for honor.
Finally, the deep-seated intentions of On Ben Peles are also revealed by the Talmud.7 It relates that On’s wife persuaded him to pull out of the dispute. She reasoned that he did not stand to gain anything from joining Korach’s rebellion. Whether Moshe would be the leader or Korach would take over, On would remain subservient, and therefore why get involved? This argument worked and On did step back, thereby saving his life.8 The Chiddushei Lev notes a contradiction – this piece of Talmud shows that On’s true intent was to gain honor and power, yet the other teaching of the Rabbis indicated that On genuinely repented and realized the error of his ways. The answer is that on a deeper level, his wife understood that what was really driving his behavior was his desire for honor. His subsequent teshuva was secondary to his realization that there was nothing to gain by joining in the dispute.
We have seen how very great people were convinced that they were acting with pure intentions and yet, deep down, they were driven by less lofty motives, with disastrous consequences. This teaches each person on his level to be very careful in situations when he believes he is acting a certain way ‘for the sake of Heaven,’ when in truth less altruistic motives may well also be driving him. In particular, when a person is involved in disputes or other kinds of negative interactions with others, he must be very wary of ulterior motives. One essential point is that he should discuss the situation with a Rav or objective observer who can help him discern his true intentions and whether his actions are truly justified.
May we all merit to learn the stark lesson of how dangerous it can be to be convinced that one is acting for the sake of Heaven.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
- Bamidbar Rabbah, 18:3.
- Rashi, Bamidbar, 16:7, Dh: Rav lachem.
- Emek Davar, Bamidbar, 16:1.
- Sanhedrin, 109b.
- Chiddushe Lev, Bamidbar, 16:1.
- See my essay, ‘On Ben Peles – a Missed Opportunity’ for the explanation of the Ben Yehoyada as to why the gemara describes him as being in aninus as opposed to aveilus.
- Sanhedrin, 109b.
- The Gemara also relates that when Korach’s men came to bring On to the dispute, she uncovered her hair, causing them to run away.
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