Collateral Damage

June 24, 2009

21 min read


Korach (Numbers 16-18 )

One of the most manipulative characters in the Torah is a man named Korach. He was filled with jealousy, 1 but rather than remain isolated, frustrated and angry, he shared his venom and spread his poison. In a brilliantly constructed plan, he attacked what he perceived to be the soft underbelly of Moshe's leadership and attempted to catapult himself to a position of stature. Eventually, he brought about his own disgrace and death, but not before he brought down many others - people he willingly sacrificed, for whom he had no regard, and who were of little or no concern to him. Those who joined his rebellion were, to his mind, no more than the faceless, nameless tools needed to accomplish his nefarious goals; his victims were "collateral damage."

Now took Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and Ohn, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuven. And they rose up before Moshe, with certain of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown. (Bamidbar 16:1-2)


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The narrative, while not completely clear, provides enough clues to enable us to reconstruct the story and sort out the characters. The main protagonist is Korach. He comes from an illustrious family that has been entrusted with a prestigious position: they are the Ark-bearers. When the Mishkan travelled, it was Korach's family that was entrusted with safeguarding the Ark of the Covenant, the epicenter of the Mishkan's holiness. But Korach was not satisfied. As the firstborn son of his family, Korach saw himself as privileged.2 He was Moshe's first cousin, and he demanded that Moshe share leadership positions within the larger family unit.3 Korach's strategy was clear: first, he attacked Aharon. This was an easy choice: Aharon's role in the Golden Calf debacle made him vulnerable to attack. Korach reasoned that deposing Aharon would leave the position of Kohen Gadol vacant. Korach saw himself as doubly entitled to fill the void: With Moshe's older brother out of the way, who would be a better choice than Moshe's first cousin, firstborn son of a prestigious Levite family?


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Korach builds a coalition, beginning with Datan, Aviram and Ohn, all from the tribe of Reuven. This is no random coalition: Reuven was the first disposed firstborn in the family of Yaakov. While previously Yishmael and Esav were rejected outright, and not considered part of the Jewish people,4 Reuven was by right of birth theoretically destined to enjoy the benefits of his position. But in a moment of instability, he loses his birthright, and is replaced5 as the leader of the brothers, and of the Tribes of Israel. If ever a tribe felt disenfranchised, surely it was the tribe of Reuven; they were natural coalition partners for Korach's insurrection against Moshe and Aharon.6

Another 250 men are recruited; the identity of these men is never expressly stated, leaving the commentaries free to make suggestions. Rashi suggests that the majority of the 250 were, like Datan and Aviram, from the Tribe of Reuven.7 Rabbenu Bachaya suggests that all the 250 were firstborn sons.8 Both of these suggestions point to a common denominator of alienation and entitlement shared by Datan, Aviram and the 250 men, either by virtue of being first-born who have been replaced by Aharon and his sons, or by virtue of their tribal affiliation - the Tribe of Reuven, the quintessential displaced firstborn, passed over for leadership.

Moshe proposes the test of the incense; while we are not told whether God instructed Moshe to conduct this test, surely the symbolism of the incense is immediately understood by every person witnessing the scene: The association with Nadav and Avihu, two bonafide kohanim, sons of Aharon who brought incense which they were not commanded, was unavoidable.

And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And there went out fire from God, and devoured them, and they died before God. (Vayikra 10:1-2)

It is quite possible that Moshe suggested they resolve the dispute by bringing incense in order to dissuade the rebels with this poignant reminder: serving God in a manner not commanded is dangerous - even deadly. Perhaps Moshe assumed that Korach and his party would abort their ill-conceived plan as soon as they heard the word "incense"; the recollection of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu was intended to stop them in their tracks and bring this unfortunate episode to an end before it went too far.

Inexplicably, inexorably, Korach and the 250 men proceed. They were united in their motivation, bound by their feelings of entitlement and resentment for Moshe and Aharon. Yet if they were all of one mind, if they shared the same motivation and committed the same sin, why were their punishments so different? Whereas Korach, Datan and Aviram were swallowed by the ground, the 250 men were consumed by fire:

And it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split beneath them; And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men who belonged to Korach, and all their goods... And there came out a fire from God, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense. (Bamidbar 16:31, 35)

This is spelled out more clearly later in the book of Bamidbar, where their different punishments are recounted in a single verse:

And the sons of Eliav; Nemuel, and Datan, and Aviram. These are the Datan and Aviram, who were regularly summoned to the congregation, who strove against Moshe and against Aharon in the company of Korach, when they strove against God. And the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korach, when that company died, the time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men; and they became a sign. (Bamidbar 26:9-10)

If all 253 men sinned in the same manner, logic would dictate that all would receive the same punishment. Yet there were two different punishments: the earth opening, and the consuming fire. A first attempt at resolving this problem is the suggestion that those who took the incense died by fire, while the others were swallowed by the earth. The difficulty with this resolution is that it seems that Korach was among those who had the incense in his hand:

And Moshe said to Korach, Be you and all your company before God, you, and they, and Aharon, tomorrow. And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring before God every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; you also, and Aharon, each of you his censer. And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense on it, and stood in the door of the Tent of Meeting with Moshe and Aharon. And Korach gathered all the congregation against them to the door of the Tent of Meeting; and the glory of God appeared to all the congregation. (Bamidbar 16:16-19)

Korach brought incense just as the other 250 did; why is the method of his punishment so different? The most logical conclusion is that if the punishments were so different, even though the actions were identical, the crimes must have been different as well. In fact the Netziv suggests that careful attention to the disparate punishments is the key to unraveling the entire episode.9


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The Netziv posits that the 250 men were quite earnest and sincere in their desire to serve God. For this reason, the language with which the Torah refers to them denotes honor and respect.10 They are described as kri'ay moed, which could mean they were often called to the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. The Netziv explains that these men were often invited for consultations; they were leaders among the nation, and Moshe often called upon as advisors.

An alternative reading of the description kri'ay moed, is that in this particular instance they were invited to come to the Tent of Meeting. 250 men were handed personal invitations to visit the Tent of Meeting; of course, the salient question is - who sent these invitations? Was it Moshe, seeking support and advice, or perhaps Korach, Datan and Aviram - seeking chaos?

The Seforno understands that Korach invited the 250 men, each of whom was part of the plot. They feigned innocence, as if they all happened to visit upon the Tent of Meeting that fateful day, providing Korach with a "random" background chorus of support. Their jeering helped create an atmosphere of general unrest, a scene of intimidation. Their chance attendance at the Tent of Meeting that day was part of the well-staged plot to challenge Moshe. Their cynicism is encapsulated in Korach's short speech:

And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of God? (Bamidbar 16:3)

The Seforno understands this as a cynical complaint: "All are holy" - kulam kedoshim." We are all holy - from head to toe11 - as if to say "We are too holy; Moshe, you have created a religion overly concerned with holiness, which is all-encompassing, and dominates every aspect of our lives." Korach and all those who joined him rejected kedusha. What they challenged was not only the leadership; they sought to empty Judaism of the spiritual quest for holiness. They sought to overthrow the religious leadership and replace it with civil, cultural Judaism. Korach and his followers were united, not by tribal affiliation or family position but by their ideological crusade against Jewish spirituality. And yet, they were punished in different ways; our question is unanswered by the Seforno's approach.


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In one short statement, the Ibn Ezra provides insight into the identity and psychology of these 250 men as well as the Machiavellian machinations of Korach. The Ibn Ezra explains that these men were summoned:

Kri'ay Moed - called to the tent: They were summoned to the Tent of Meeting. (Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 16:2)

These 250 men were not originally part of the rebellion; they received invitations, and innocently arrived at the Tent of Meeting. They were not seeking glory, nor were they seeking confrontation. They were unaware that they were being manipulated.

It is the Ibn Ezra's second point which is even more intriguing.

Men of (name) renown: before they left Egypt. (Ibn Ezra on Bamidbar 16:2)

These were well - known people, leaders of the community before the Jews left Egypt. What had caused their subsequent loss stature?

The Midrash tells us that the hierarchy of enslavement was composed of Egyptian taskmasters and Jewish officers. The Egyptian taskmasters tyrannized the Jewish officers, who in turn forced the Jews to work. Presumably, these Jewish officers were physically intimidating men who exerted brute force on the Jewish slaves. In fact, one of these officers is identified by name: he is none other than Datan!

We recall that on one occasion, Moshe left the comforts of the palace of Pharoh to "seek his brothers", and he witnesses an altercation between an Egyptian taskmasters and a Jew:

And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. (Sh'mot 2:11-12)

The Midrash provides the background for this altercation: The Egyptian taskmaster had raped the wife of a Jewish officer:

AND HE SAW AN EGYPTIAN SMITING A HEBREW. What did he see? R. Huna in the name of Bar Kappara said: ...Whence do we know that (the Jewish slaves) were not guilty of adultery? Because there was only one immoral woman and the Bible published her name, as it is said: And his mother's name was Shlomit, the daughter of Divri (Vayikra 24:11). The Rabbis said: The taskmasters were Egyptians but the officers were Israelites, one taskmaster being appointed over ten officers and one officer over ten Israelites. The taskmasters used to go to the officers' houses early in the morning to drag them out to work at cock-crow. Once an Egyptian taskmaster went to a Jewish officer and set eyes upon his wife who was beautiful without blemish. He waited for cock-crow, when he dragged the officer out of his house and then returned to lie down with the woman who thought that it was her husband, with the result that she became pregnant from him. When her husband returned, he discovered the Egyptian emerging from his house. He then asked her: 'Did he touch you?' She replied: 'Yes, for I thought it was you.' When the taskmaster realized that he was caught, he made (the Jew) go back to his hard labor, smiting him and trying to slay him. When Moshe saw this, he knew by means of the Holy Spirit what had happened in the house and what the Egyptian was about to do in the field; so he said: ' This man certainly deserves his death, as it is written: And he that smiteth any man mortally shall surely be put to death (Vayikra 17). Moreover, since he cohabited with the wife of Datan he deserves slaying, as it is said: 'Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death' (Vayikra 20:10). Hence does it say: AND HE LOOKED THIS WAY AND THAT WAY (Sh'mot 2:12), namely, he saw what he did to him [Datan] in the house and what he intended doing to him in the field. (Midrash Rabbah Sh'mot 1:28)

Moshe saw to it that the abusive Egyptian taskmaster would abuse no more. Rather than thanking Moshe for ridding him of his tormenter, when Datan, the cuckolded, humiliated husband, sees Moshe again, he attacks. Datan is an Israelite officer, a necessary cog in the Egyptian slave enterprise. Datan and another Jew are fighting; Moshe steps in to break it up, and is subjected to Datan's vitriol:

And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews struggled together; and he said to the one who did the wrong, Why do you strike your fellow? And he said, Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian? And Moshe feared, and said, Certainly this thing is known. (Sh'mot 2:13-14)

Once again, the protagonist remains anonymous in the verses, and once again the Midrash identifies the protagonist as Datan, struggling with Aviram.

AND HE WENT OUT THE SECOND DAY, AND BEHOLD, TWO MEN OF THE HEBREWS WERE STRIVING TOGETHER (ib. 13). This refers to Datan and Aviram, who are described as 'striving' on account of their subsequent record; for it was they who said this thing; it was they who left over of the Manna; they it was who said: Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt (Bamidbar 14:4). It was they who rebelled at the Red Sea. Another explanation of STRIVING is that they intended to slay one another; as it says: When men strive together one with another (Devarim 25:1), and R. Eleazar said: The verse speaks of a strife involving death. AND HE SAID TO HIM THAT DID THE WRONG, WHEREFORE WILT THOU SMITE THY FELLOW. It does not say: ' Wherefore hast thou smitten? ' but WHEREFORE WILT THOU SMITE? To teach us that from the moment one lifts up his hand to smite his fellow, though he has not yet smitten him, he is called wicked. THY FELLOW, who is as wicked as thou art; this tells us that both were wicked. (Midrash Rabbah Sh'mot 1:29)

Every step of the way Datan and Aviram tried to thwart Moshe's leadership; simply stated, they wanted to return to Egypt: "Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt (Bamidbar 14, 4)." Once we grasp the full import of the information supplied by the Midrash, we can more easily understand why Datan and Aviram would want to turn the clock back and return to the land of enslavement: These two men had been officers in the Egyptian slave machine, best described by a term familiar to us from our more recent history: They had been kapos in Egypt; they enjoyed positions of power and prestige - leadership positions. It was no wonder they longed to return to Egypt. When Datan and Aviram join Korach, a brilliant plan is hatched: They create an alliance with the other 250 now-demoted and disgraced ex-kapos. They bring them all to the Tent of Meeting, and erect a fa?ade of bullies and thugs, creating the impression of a unified front against Moshe.


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Korach then begins his sermon. In light of what we now know about the background of those present, his message is and his methods are all the more shocking:

And they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of God? (Bamidbar 16:3)

These former officers must have had intense feelings of guilt for every time they raised a hand against a fellow Jew. In their minds, they had no choice; they served as a buffer between the ruthless Egyptians and their fellow Jews. They believed that their brethren were better off with the blows delivered by one of their own than the blows of the sadistic Egyptians. They may have acted out of love, out of a desire to shield the Jews as best they could from the cruelty of the Egyptians, but now that they had been set free, all that remained was their own sense of guilt.

To these scarred psyches, Korach's words were like a salve: "All the congregation are holy, every one of them"; even the former Jewish officers. Rashi explains:

All are Holy: All heard the words at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty. (Rashi Bamidbar 16:3)

This was a message of hope, a message of rebirth - a message that was particularly meaningful for the guilt-ridden officers: Finally, someone understood their pain. A leadership crisis had emerged, and these former leaders felt impotent. They stood on the sides and watched as the dream of entering the Promised Land unraveled before their eyes, and they felt tainted, inadequate - and useless. Then came Korach with his message of hope.


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Korach exploited these men, first for their "muscle" as he gathered them around the Tent in a show of physical strength to intimidate Moshe. Then, he spoke to their fragile egos, manipulating them, using their guilt as a motivational tool. He coaxed them into believing that they were as holy as the kohanim. Unlike Korach, the motives of these 250 men were pure. They were misguided, vulnerable men looking for a way to find penance, but they were pawns in Korach's power play. Like Nadav and Avihu, they were holy and pure, but misguided; like Nadav and Avihu they marched to their deaths bearing incense which they were not asked to bring. And like Nadav and Avihu the 250 men are consumed by fire, and die "before God" in the Mishkan.

Korach, Datan and Aviram made use of the pure motives of these 250 men, but did not share these motives. They were driven by a different force. Rather than seeking absolution, forgiveness, holiness - they were motivated by jealousy. They craved power. Their motivation was different, as was their punishment: The Earth opened its mouth and swallowed them. The lesson is a powerful one: Man is no more than dust, the lowliest physical stuff, and infused with spiritual power.

And God God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Bereishit 2:7)

The sins of Korach, Datan and Aviram had nothing to do with spirit; they had no interest in the issues of soul, purity, holiness. Not only did they rebel against God and Moshe, not only did they attack Moshe and Aharon, they led 250 men to their deaths, and ascribed them no more significance than collateral damage in their unholy battle. Their punishment led them to the unavoidable end of their own chosen path; they were relegated to the status as dust of the earth, with no means of elevation of their souls. They had no business with the heavenly fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu or the 250 men; their bodies descended into the earth, enveloped by earth. They had divorced themselves from holiness, and so they remained, far away from the souls which were breathed into them.

The tragedy does not end when the rebels are punished; subsequently, many more people lose their lives. The rest of the nation knew how contrite and holy these officers were. The larger community understood how tragic the situation was; they found it difficult to accept their deaths, and they complained:

But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon, saying, You have killed the people of God. (Bamidbar 17:6)

Soon a plague spread through the camp, and another 14,700 people die:

And those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside those who died about the matter of Korach. (Bamidbar 17:14)

It is Aharon who stops the plague:

And Moshe said to Aharon, Take a censer, and put fire in it from the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly to the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for anger has come out from God; the plague has begun. And Aharon took as Moshe commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague had begun among the people; and he put on incense, and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped. (Bamidbar 17:11-13)

Korach wanted to replace Aharon, yet all he brought was death and tears. It was Aharon who stopped the plague that Korach started. It was Aharon's selfless love, the exact and total opposite of Korach's self-centered and cynical manipulation of other Jews' weaknesses, that allowed him to stand between the dead and the living and to prevent more death. Aharon was and always will be the true Kohen Gadol.



1. See Rabenu Bachya Bamidbar 16:1.

2. See Rabenu Bachya Bamidbar 16:1.

3. Rabenu Bachya Bamidbar 16:1 says they thought Moshe was responsible for the Reuven losing their rights as firstborn. They thought because of the affection that Moshe had for Yehoshua, he gave Yosef the birthright so Yehoshua from Efraim (Yosef's son) can have his own tribe. It is surprising that they wouldn't know that Yaakov himself took away the birthright from Reuven.

4. For a Talmudic discussion on the legal status of Esav, see Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 18a.

5. Yaakov uses the word "unstable" in his "blessing" of Reuven, see Bereishit 49:4.

6. See Kli Yakar Bamidbar 16:1.

7. See Rashi Bamidbar 16:1.

8. See Rabenu Bachya Bamidbar 16:1.

9. Commentary of the Netziv Bamidbar 16:1.

10. Ibid.


11. See Seforno 16:3.


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