Follow the Leader

June 24, 2009

18 min read


Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

Contrary to popular belief, the people of Israel accepted Moses as the prophet, the only human being authorized to transmit God's laws, not because of the miracles he performed, but because of the way they all saw him interact with God at Mount Sinai. The entire Jewish people saw Moses approach the Cloud of Glory; everyone heard the Divine voice speaking to him and instructing him to instruct them. As Maimonides explains:

How do we know that the meeting at Sinai was the proof of the truth of his [Moses'] prophecy? Because it is written, "Behold, I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever" (Exodus 19:9). We see then, that prior to this event they did not have the type of belief in him [Moses] that would last forever, and only had the type of belief which is affected by doubts and second thoughts. (Maimonides, Yesodei Hatora, 8:1)

The implication: subsequent to the Sinai experience, the Jewish people did have the type of belief in Moses' prophecy that lasts forever. So how do we account for Korach and his fellow rebels? Weren't they also present at Mount Sinai? Why didn't they believe that it was God who told Moses prophetically to appoint Aaron as the High Priest? And if they did believe it, why did they challenge the appointment? If the rebellion was caused by the fact that Moses never informed the Jewish people that it was God's idea to appoint Aaron, why didn't he simply declare when Korach questioned him, "Listen, it was not my idea to appoint Aaron, God instructed me to do it"?

The Ohr Hachaim Hakodosh, the well-known Kabbalistic commentator on Chumash, offers an intriguing answer: Korach and his followers did believe that God told Moses to appoint Aaron; the conflict arose because they didn't believe that the appointment was God's idea. They were certain that God consented to the appointment, but their contention was that the idea of Aaron's appointment originated with Moses, and did not come from God.

Korach and his followers never contended that Aaron was unfit to serve as the High Priest. They maintained, however, that there were other people who were equally qualified. It was their theory that the background to Aaron's appointment was Moses' very special relationship with God. God loved Moses; if Moses suggested his brother for the office of High Priest, and Aaron was a suitable candidate, why wouldn't God sanction the appointment? As Aaron was eminently suitable for the job, the mere fact that Moses desired his brother's appointment would be sufficient to tip the scales in Aaron's favor.

It was the opinion of the rebels that it would have been equally acceptable to God to appoint some other suitable person had it been suggested to Him, or to set up a rotation system for the office of High Priest, or to eliminate the office of High Priest altogether and have a few people officiating at the same time instead of just one person had such a request been put to Him. This contention is evident in the way they voiced their complaint:

"It is too much for you! For the entire assembly - all of them - are holy and God is among them; why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of God?" (Numbers 16:3)

The explanation of the Ohr Hachaim certainly answers some knotty questions but it raises some new problems. If this was indeed the problem why couldn't the conflict with Korach be resolved peacefully without any loss of life? Why didn't God simply declare that the appointment of Aaron was truly His idea and not Moses'? Why was there a need for such massive turmoil to solve what would appear to be a simple problem in communication?


We need some more background on the Korach story to fully understand the incident and the lesson it is meant to teach us.

The Midrash tells us that Korach's rebellion was not provoked by the appointment of Aaron as the High Priest but by the appointment of Korach's cousin, Elzafan ben Uziel, as the head of the Kehas family of Levites.

Korach's grandfather, Kehas, had three sons: Amrom, Yizhar, and Uziel. Jewish inheritance law awards a double portion to the first-born. Amrom, being the first-born was thus legitimately entitled to a double share, and Korach was not bothered by the fact that Amrom's sons, Aaron and Moses were awarded the priesthood and the leadership of the Jewish people respectively. But following the same Jewish laws of inheritance, the next person in line for a position should have been a descendant of Yizhar, the second born. As Yizhar's son, Korach reasoned that he should have been appointed the head of the Kehas family instead of Elzafan, who was the son of Uziel, the youngest of the three brothers.

The Ohr Hachaim explains further that this Midrash does not mean to attribute the rebellion to simple jealousy; on the contrary, it comes to explain that Korach had a very serious issue. Korach argued that fundamental principles of justice demanded that appointments be made on the basis of some objective standard. Moses' appointments demonstrated that he was following no objective standard and therefore deserved to be rejected.

If the standard chosen was the standard of merit, the position of High Priest should have been awarded by lot, as everyone was deserving, for the entire congregation was holy. If positions were awarded on the basis of following the laws of inheritance according to the lines of descent, also an objective criterion whose suitability we have explained in previous essays, he, Korach should have been appointed as the spiritual head of the Kehas family in place of his cousin Elzafan.

It was therefore evident that Moses was employing neither of these standards and was selecting people to fill positions arbitrarily on the basis of his own personal preference. To allow Moses to make appointments as he saw fit, following his own whims, based on no objective criteria, was to grant him dictatorial powers. Korach's argument was that no one had appointed Moses as dictator.

But before we get carried away by the compelling beauty of this explanation we must ask ourselves how all this is relevant. What does any of this have to do with God? Moses was only a prophet after all, how could anyone directly under God's control ever be accused of usurping dictatorial powers? We need to examine the issues at still greater depth to emerge with understanding.


Temporal political power originates with the people over whom it is exercised and it is they who must award it. For this reason, democratic principles demand that the people themselves select their leaders in free elections such as the practice in our society. Theoretically, other systems of selecting leaders can also be devised - panels of experts, laws of inheritance, training philosopher kings as suggested by Plato. The method is not the point, as long as the people sanction the process. If they do not, their power is being usurped - the basic definition of dictatorship. It is irrelevant whether the dictator is benevolent or not; his use of power is always illegitimate - all dictators usurp the power that belongs to the body politic without its consent.

But spiritual leaders represent God. Prophets like Moses serve as intermediaries between God and the Jewish people. As such, they are conduits for the transmission of Divine messages.

At first glance it would appear that the selection of such people legitimately belongs to God; prophets are His representatives after all. However, the issue is rather more complex due to the fact that prophets serve as a conduit for a lot more than God's messages. They are also the conduits for God's miracles and as such the personality of a prophet can impact heavily on the sorts of miracles that he can deliver. For example, we pointed out in Parshat Be'halot'cha that Moses was unable to serve as the conduit for the delivery of meat; he could only act as a conduit for supplying manna.

This idea is clearly stated in the very last verses in the Torah where Moses is eulogized:

"Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom God had known face to face as evidenced by all the signs and wonders that God sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land, and by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel." (Deut. 34:10-12)

The quality of Moses' miracles is clearly correlated to the level of his prophecy; only a prophet on Moses' incomparable uniqueness was able to serve as the conduit for the delivery of the miracles of the Exodus.

But miracles have political implications because they affect people. Witness the Jewish people's reaction to the miracle of the incense that established the legitimacy of Aaron's priesthood but which proved so lethal to those who contested it:

"The entire assembly of the Children of Israel complained on the morrow against Moses and Aaron, saying, 'You have killed the people of God.' "(Numbers 17:6)

On the face of it, this was a very bizarre reaction to a miraculous event, which was presumably controlled entirely by God. How could the Jews accuse Moses and Aaron for killing the people of God when it is obvious that their deaths were the direct consequence of a miracle provided by God Himself? Obviously, in the eyes of the people God could not be held accountable for these deaths; the prophet serves as the conduit for the delivery of miracles, and only those miracles for which he constitutes an open channel can be delivered. If Moses had devised a less lethal test for the Divine verification and vindication of Aaron's priesthood, God would have provided a benign miracle to validate Aaron's priesthood and no one would have died.


Because prophecy has political ramifications as well as spiritual ones, the issue of the proper selection process of a prophet becomes complex. It is not unreasonable for the Jewish people to argue that they should be involved in the process of the prophet's selection, or at least in the selection of those who occupy spiritual positions under him.

This then is the full explanation of the position adopted by Korach and his followers. They claimed that Moses was a dictator; the fact that he was God's choice as prophet did not automatically erase the legitimacy of their demand to have a say in the distribution of spiritual positions that clearly had political implications.

He was the people's prophet as well, and since his actions and his personality impacted directly on their quality of life, principles of justice demanded that the people have some say over the manner in which he conducted his office. They obviously couldn't have their say at the Divine end of the process, it was God who decided who He would talk to, but why couldn't they have a say at the human end of the equation and express their interest in controlling the human spiritual appointments involved in the overall interaction with the Divinity?

The story of Korach's rebellion can only be fully understood if we view it as a power struggle with God Himself. In fact this is precisely how Moses reacts to the demands of the rebels:

"Therefore, you and your entire assembly that are joining together are against God! And as for Aaron - what is he that you protest against him?" (Numbers 16:11)

Moses disagrees with Korach's position; in his opinion it is solely up to God to select the people who will serve as the conduits for spiritual inputs. This decision does not legitimately belong to the Jewish body politic who is merely the recipient of such inputs. Later, God Himself officially adopts this position when he tells Moses to take a staff from each tribe:

"It shall be that the man whom I shall choose - his staff will blossom; thus shall I cause to subside from Me the complaints of the Children of Israel, which they complain against you." (Numbers 17:20)

The passage demonstrates that God recognizes that the complaints against Moses are really complaints against Him: "subside from Me ... they complain against you" - this rebellion is really God's political struggle, not Moses'. God recognizes that it is His responsibility to clarify how the principles work in setting up His spiritual machinery. Unlike the incidence with the incense God comes up with the suggestion of the twelve staffs on His Own initiative; one from each tribe, "to subside from Me the complaints of the Children of Israel."


This analysis returns us to the overall theme of the Book of Numbers. Once again we are involved with the establishment of constitutional norms that will serve as the basic fabric of the Jewish body politic through the ages.

The Korach story has enormous historic implications. It teaches us that the principles of democratic process cannot be applied to spiritual interactions. Accepting a spiritual relationship with God necessarily means leaving Him with the decision making power of selecting the people who will serve as the channel for the communications and inputs that originate from Him. The choice of selecting the conduits to God, despite the fact that it is laden with earthly political consequences, is not a power that constitutionally inheres in the Jewish body politic. The appropriation of such power by God's chosen representatives does not constitute an unjust appropriation of powers that belong to the Jewish nation.


This principle has fascinating implications, for the person who serves as Israel's conduit to God is not merely a passive representative but has independent powers of his own.

One of the better-known illustrations of the powers possessed by such people is provided by the following passage of Talmud:

The daughter of Nechemia, the well digger, [he was noted for digging wells to supply fresh water for the influx of pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem on the occasion of the tri-annual holidays] fell into a well and was in danger of drowning. They came to inform Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa; he assured them that she was safe. An hour later she was still in the well and they came to ask him again; he told them she was still safe; an hour later they came again. This time he told them that she had been rescued in the last hour; it turned out that he was perfectly correct. They asked him how he knew; did he possess the gift of prophecy?

He explained that although he was not a prophet he knew she was rescued because he could not believe that a person who devoted his life to good works that involved the digging of wells would ever lose his daughter through drowning in a well. As no one could survive for three hours in a well, he was certain that she was rescued in the third hour. The Talmud goes on to say that despite R'Chaina's certainty regarding Nechemia's immunity from being injured by water, Nechemia's son died of thirst. (Baba Kama 50a)

Tosefos wonders at this - was Rabbi Chanina wrong then? After all, his contention was that it was impossible for any harm to come to Nechemia's children through water seems to have been verified by the daughter's miraculous rescue. Tosefos answers: By the time the son died of thirst, Rabbi Chanina had himself passed away. As long as he was alive, God conducted the world according to R' Chanina's understanding. When he passed away, God reverted to running the world according to His own policies once again.

In effect God also surrenders power to the person whom He selects as His conduit. After He chooses His representative, He Himself abides by the representative's decisions.

If we trace the steps of the passage of power, it goes like this:

  1. The Jewish people hand over power to God.
  2. God hands this power on to His representative.
  3. The ultimate decision power over how to run the universe ends up in the hands of God's representative!


This manifestation of the power held in the hands of God's representatives is specifically recognized in the following passage of Talmud:

The God of Israel has said, 'The rock of Israel has spoken to me. Become a ruler over men, a righteous one, who rules through the fear of God.' (Samuel 2, 23:3) Rabbi Avohu said, "What does this verse mean? The God of Israel has said, 'The rock of Israel has spoken to me, "I reign over man, but who reigns over Me? The righteous one. Because, when I issue an edict, the righteous one has the power to overrule Me."' (Talmud, Moed Katan 16b)

It is on account of this power held by the tzadik that so many Jews go to such great lengths to solicit the blessings of tzaddikim at crisis points in their lives.


But there is a second even more profound manifestation of this power that is illustrated by the incident presented in a famous passage of Talmud, (Baba Metzia, 59b) concerning a circular clay oven that was sliced into sections:

Rabbi Elazar ruled that such an oven is ritually clean; the majority of rabbis ruled that it was ritually unclean. [The actual point of law is rather esoteric and irrelevant to the point under discussion in this essay; it concerns the laws of Tamey in clay vessels.]

Rabbi Elazar said: "If the halacha is like I say, the carob tree should move a hundred cubits." The tree duly moved but the rabbis said, 'you cannot prove your point from a tree'. Then Rabbi Elazar said: "Let the river run upstream to show that I am right." The river duly reversed its course but the rabbis remained unimpressed. Then Rabbi Elazar said, "Let the walls of the study hall show that I am right." The walls began to collapse. At this point Rabbi Yehoshua rose and said: "Walls of the study hall, if rabbis argue with each other about the halacha what business is it of yours?" The walls stopped collapsing to honor Rabbi Yehoshua, but did not straighten in honor of Rabbi Elazar. Finally Rabbi Elazar said: "If I am right let Heaven confirm it." A heavenly voice issued saying, "Why do you contend with Rabbi Elazar when the halacha is always like him?" Rabbi Yehoshua rose again and said, "It [The Torah] is no longer in heaven!"

What does this mean? Rabbi Yirmiah explained, "The Torah was already given on Mount Sinai and the heavenly voice no longer has authority. The Torah given on Mount Sinai already stated the applicable rule, Follow the majority (Exodus 23:2)"

Rabbi Noson bumped into Elijah and asked him, "What did God say when Rabbi Yehoshua made his statement?" He told him, "God smiled and said, 'My children have overruled me, My children have overruled me.'"

Torah tradition maintains that Torah law rather than natural law is the law that governs the universe. As the Zohar states, He studied the Torah and created the world. (Introduction, 5a) The rabbis who decide Torah issues effectively hold the reigns of the universe in their hands. Even God cannot decide against the consensus of rabbinic opinion!

This arrangement of the constitutional powers not only of the body politic but also of the entire universe is unique to Judaism. The severest critics of the legitimacy of rabbinic authority readily admit that it is the position occupied by the scholar and the tzaddik in Jewish society that imparts Orthodox Judaism its unique flavor. The translation of spiritual power into temporal authority is the valuable legacy bequeathed to us by Korach. By challenging Moses and God, he brought down the teachings that clarified these thorny issues forevermore.

This legacy of teachings also lies at the very heart of our survival as a unique people.

While the rest of the world is swept along by the powerful tides of changing ideas, where the politically correct position never stands still, Judaism has remained substantially unaltered from the days of the confrontation between Moses and Korach. The rabbis have proven themselves quite adept at wielding their mediating power between God and man.

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