Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
memory of Ephraim (Arpad) ben Yeshayahu ve Rachel Kaufman z"l in honour of
his yahrzeit 26 Sivan.
Dedicated by his son Moishe Yeshayahu.
tov to Rav Assaf and Leora Bednarsh upon the brit of their son Matityahu.
May they be zocheh to raise him le-Torah, le-chuppa, u-le-maasim tovim.
The rebellion of Korach opens on a
dramatic note. Together with his allies
Datan and Aviram, as well as 250 "princes of the assembly," Korach
confronts Moshe and Aharon with a harsh and provocative accusation.
too much for yourselves (rav lachem),
for all the congregation is holy, each and every one, and why do you raise
yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?
In response to the
claim of Korach and his assembly, and apparently picking up on Korach's
insistence that all are "holy," Moshe interprets the challenge as
primarily cultic in nature, as being about service in the sanctuary and
Aharon's role as High Priest.
Consequently, Moshe attempts to assuage Korach's pride, and reminds him
that as a Levite, he too has a role in the service that takes place in the
Mishkan (16:8-9). Simultaneously, he
chides Korach, reprimanding him for also desiring priesthood and conspiring
against Aharon. (16:8-11).
In addition, right before Moshe's
attempt at reconciliation, he proposes a test, a way to determine who in fact
is holy and who in fact is not. Like the
subsequent negotiation (16:8-11), the test indicates that Moshe views the
nascent rebellion as focused upon service in the Mishkan. In fact, he views it as a power grab not just
for priesthood, but for the singular role of High Priest. Proclaiming that God will make known
"who is his and who is holy" (16:5), Moshe suggests that each of the
members of Korach's assembly take a firepan, and place
fire and incense in them "in front of the Lord" (16:7). In Moshe's words, "The one that is
chosen by God, he is the holy one" (16:7).
Only one can be chosen, for the entire conflict is really about the role
of High Priest.
While the office of High Priest may
well be Korach's goal, it seems difficult to imagine that the other members of
Korach's assembly, the 250 Israelite princes, also possess such lofty
ambitions. After all, there are 250 of
them. As Moshe's words remind us, High
Priest is a one man job. For that
matter, even standard priesthood seems a bit of a stretch. Until now, the sanctuary has made do with but
a handful of priests, Aharon and sons.
Could there really be enough work to accommodate another 250? And what
about all those who would wish to sign up for sanctuary work upon the
While understanding the original
agenda of the Israelite members of Korach's rebellion may seem slightly
problematic, tracking their motivation throughout the remainder of the story
seems far more difficult. A careful look
at the test proposed by Moshe, and which the 250 rebels seem game for, should
help clarify the point.
As mentioned, Moshe prescribes an
incense challenge. The exact terms of
the challenge include "taking a firepan" (kechu lachem machtot),
"putting fire" (u-tenu bahen eish), and "placing incense
upon" (ve-simu aleihen ketoret) (16:6-7). These terms should remind us of the Nadav and
Avihu narrative and their death. On the
day of the Mishkan's inauguration, Nadav and Avihu met their tragic end. In recounting the events, the Torah teaches
us that Nadav and Avihu "took each man his firepan" (vayikchu…ish
machtato), that "they put in them fire" (vayitnu bahen eish),
and that "they placed upon it incense" (vayasimu alav ketoret)
(Vayikra 10:1). The actions of
Nadav and Avihu also involved the threefold process of "taking a
firepan," "putting fire," and "placing incense upon."
Moreover, Moshe phrases his
challenge with two key words. In
introducing the test, Moshe claims that God will make known who is
"holy," and in a strange locution, twice states that God will
"bring close" the chosen one (16:5).
In doing so, Moshe utilizes the stem k.r.v. meaning close, and
which also comprises the root of the word korban, meaning
sacrifice. It is in fact conjugated in
the two usages here as ve-hikriv, or yakriv, conjugations
normally associated with a sacrificial context.
Strikingly, both these terms, "holy" and "close,"
also appear in the Nadav and Avihu narrative.
The unauthorized offering of incense is described by the Torah as "vaykrivu
lifnei Hashem," and they offered before the Lord (10:1). As for the term "holy," in the
aftermath of the incident, Moshe utilizes it in conjunction with the term
"close," telling Aharon that "bikrovai ekadeish - I will
be hallowed with those who come close to me" (10:3). This latter phrase is notoriously
difficult. According to the Ramban
(10:3), Moshe informed Aharon that God had decided to sanctify and protect His
holy place at all cost. Alternatively,
most commentaries maintain that Moshe told Aharon that Nadav and Avihu have in
some sense become sacrifices, that they are the ones close to God and have in
some way sanctified his name in dying (Rashi, Ibn Ezra 10:3). Either way, the overlap between the death of
Nadav and Avihu and the ketoret challenge offered to the assembly of
Korach is readily apparent.
Finally, as this were not enough, in
a third parallel between the two stories, Moshe informs Korach's assembly that
the test will take place "before the Lord" (16:7). But this is the exact same place that Nadav
and Avihu brought their incense, they "offered before the Lord"
In sum, by making the threefold
reference to "firepan," "putting fire" and "placing
incense" Moshe injects the death of Nadav and Avihu into his conversation
with Korach and his assembly. By
utilizing the terms "kadosh" and "yakriv,"
Moshe echoes his own statement to Aharon describing the death of his sons, and
offers a thinly veiled hint that the same exact fate awaits the members of
Korach's congregation. By referring to
the setting of "before the Lord," he makes it almost obvious.
In point of fact, as the narrative
progresses, the implicit hint becomes ever more explicit. Until now we have dealt with Moshe's original
proposal of the incense challenge (16:5-7).
Following Moshe's unsuccessful attempts at dialogue with the leaders of
the rebellion (16:8-15), the narrative returns to the looming challenge and
Moshe recapitulates his instructions (16:16).
Using the phrase "each man his firepan" three times, Moshe
informs the assembly of Korach that they should "offer in front of the
Lord" the next day. But of course,
this is the exact terminology utilized by the Torah to describe the actions of
Nadav and Avihu. Vayikra 10:1-2
teaches that Nadav and Avihu took "each man his firepan" (10:1), and
they "offered in front of the Lord" (10:2).
While we might well expect the
members of Korach's assembly to get the point and retreat in the face of
looming disaster, the very next verse reports the accomplishment of Moshe's
instructions. In a return to the three
primary markers of the Nadav and Avihu narrative (10:1-3), the Torah informs us
that the members of Korach's assembly "took each his firepan,"
"put fire" and "placed incense" (16:18). Fully prepared, they gathered at the door of
the Tent of Meeting.
Of course the next step in the
parallel and the fate of Korach's assembly is no surprise. In what might be thought of as the completion
of the parallel, the story of the rebellion ends with a fire "that goes
out from in front of the Lord" (16:35) and consumes the 250 princes, the
precise fate that befell Nadav and Avihu (10:2).
For the reader, the fiery end of
Korach's followers is not exactly shocking.
After all, they are rebels. But
more importantly, on the thematic plane, their actions stand in a relation of
identity to those of Nadav and Avihu.
Just as Nadav and Avihu's actions of "taking a firepan,"
"putting fire," "placing incense" and "offering before
the Lord" are defined by the Torah as "a foreign fire" not
commanded by the Lord (Vayikra 10:1) resulting in death by a divine fire
(10:2), so too, the Israelite assembly's very same actions are viewed as a
violation, a foreign fire not commanded by the Lord. They are punished with consumption by divine
This brings us back to Moshe, the
incense challenge and the motivations of Korach's assembly. In offering the challenge, Moshe sends a
particular message. In making the claim
of holiness, in desiring priesthood, the assembly of Korach runs the risk of
meeting the same fate as Nadav and Avihu.
An incense offering brought by someone other than Aharon or his sons
most certainly comprises a "foreign fire." It is not commanded by God and will most
certainly result in death. Moshe in fact
offers a choice: desist or face death.
In this light, as the narrative develops and Moshe draws the parallel
between the incense challenge and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu ever tighter,
the persistence of the Israelite princes becomes harder and harder to
understand. Do they not remember what
happened to Nadav and Avihu? Or do they think that their acts will not be
considered a violation, and the challenge is in fact a real test, something
other than a sophisticated death threat? Or perhaps they are quite aware of the
risk of death, but are nevertheless willing to take their chances?
In sum, in analyzing the motivations
of Korach's assembly, we face a dual challenge.
In addition to trying to puzzle out their original motivation, we must
also try to discern their reasons for persisting with their path, even in the
face of death.
Figuring out the motivation of
Biblical characters often constitutes a difficult task. The Torah is notoriously sparse on
characterization and often provides little of the material necessary for
psychological analysis of motivation.
This is ever more the case regarding minor characters, especially those
like the assembly of Korach, who never speak.
They simply persist in a particular course of action. Almost by definition, in these kinds of
cases, analysis of motivation is highly speculative.
Despite this caveat, it is worth a
try. In addition, despite the claim
about lack of evidence, the Torah does place characters and their appearances
in particular contexts, and narratives do possess very particular structures. These contexts and structures can often
provide clues helpful for analyzing motivation.
With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the structure of the
Korach narrative (16:1-35).
The overall structure of the rise of
the rebellion and its downfall can be mapped as follows:
The confrontation and
accusation of rav lachem
Moshe's proposal of a test to
determine the "holy"
Moshe's attempt to
and his assembly
Moshe's attempt to negotiate
with Datan and Aviram
Preparation for the test,
gathering at door of Tent of Meeting
God's threat to destroy the
entire community – Prayer of Moshe
Gathering at door of tent of
Datan, Aviram & Korach – Destruction of rebels at both locations
narrative, the Torah paints the picture of a unified rebellion led by three key
figures, Korach, Datan and Aviram. The
story opens with the three leaders "taking," a metaphor for gathering
their assembly (16:1). In parallel, in
the closing section seven, the text refers numerous times to the "mishkan,"
or tent of the three leaders, Korach, Datan and Aviram (16:24, 27). God himself refers explicitly in section
seven to "mishkan Korach Datan ve-Aviram" (16:24), the unified
camp of the three leaders.
Likewise, the description of the
demise of the rebellion further unifies the various elements of the story. A moment before their demise, Datan and
Aviram emerge from their tents, already termed a "mishkan"
(16:24, 27) and stand "at the door of their tents," surrounded by the
people. This position precisely
parallels the position of Korach and his assembly. They also stand at the door of a tent, the
door of the Tent of Meeting (16:18), also know as the Mishkan. They too, are surrounded by the people
Furthermore, the two groups at the
two tents, both surrounded by the people, meet their demise in synchronous or
perhaps even simultaneous fashion. The
closing segment of the story (16:23-35), section seven above, is set at the
rebel's camp and primarily details the swallowing up into the earth of the
rebel's entire camp, the "mishkan" of Korach and his cohorts
(16:23-24). After the miraculous
descent, in the last verse of the story, the text reverts back to the other mishkan,
The Mishkan. In a long delayed
resolution to the action of section five (16:16-19), the Torah informs us of
the consumption by fire of the 250 princes engaged in offering incense. For some reason, the Torah's report of the
fate of the incense bringers is delayed until after the destruction of the
rebels' camp. Apparently, the two
resolutions are somehow connected.
Either they happen simultaneously, or perhaps in some sense the
swallowing of the "mishkan" into the earth paves the way for
the resolution at the Mishkan.
But there may be more to it than
this. In addition to the textual or
chronological connection, the Torah may be performing an interesting
manipulation of images. While the
destruction wrought by fire is often termed "eating" by the Torah (Shemot
22:5, Vayikra 10:2), the use of the term "eating" in our parasha
to describe the death of the Israelite assembly (16:35) may pack another
dimension. Picking up on the imagery of
"the mouth of the earth" and "swallowing" utilized
(16:30-32) to depict the demise of the "mishkan" of Korach and
his cohorts, the Torah describes the divine fire as "eating" the 250
princes located at the Mishkan (16:35).
The two sets of events, those at the "mishkan" and
those at the Mishkan are essentially related.
In some way, they are the "same."
The key to putting all this together
lies in the usage of the term "mishkan." Admittedly, as pointed out by Rashi and the
Ibn Ezra (16:1), as a descendant of Kehat, Korach dwelt on the southern flank
of the Mishkan. Likewise, Datan and
Aviram, members of the Tribe of Reuven also encamped on the south. Yet the term "mishkan"
implies far more than just a group of tents planted together by mere
coincidence. Just as the Mishkan
comprises a focal point and stands at the center of the physical and social
world of the Israelite camp, so too, the "mishkan" of Korach
and his cohorts comprises a focal point and center. Most probably, the rebels have broken ranks
and pitched their tents together in violation of the arrangement of the camp
outlined in the beginning of Bamidbar.
Their "mishkan" is the social and political center of
the rebellion. It is the "big
tent" of a new political party.
This brings us back to the "mishkan"
– Mishkan parallel outlined above and the textual connections between the
demise of the two groups. The Mishkan,
the true center of the camp, is not the "mishkan"' the camp of
Korach and his cohorts. Likewise, the
Tent of Meeting is not "their tent" (ohaleihem) (16:27), the
term used to describe the tent of Korach, Datan and Aviram.
Reversing this relation is exactly
the point of the rebellion and the challenge to Moshe and Aharon. Upon the success of the rebellion, the
Mishkan will take on the character of the "mishkan" of Korach,
Datan and Aviram. Upon the success of
the rebellion, The Tent of Meeting will take on the character of "their
As such, the action at the Mishkan
is in some sense contingent upon the action at the tent of Korach. Only after the main focus and cause of the
rebellion has been quashed does the Torah return to the fate of the 250 takers
of the incense challenge. They are more
the result, a kind of symptom of the actual rebellion. Consequently, on the textual and literary
plane, their demise must wait for the demise of the vital center of the
The interconnection of the events at
the two tents and the dependence of the events at the Miskan on the quashing of
the rebel center should make us realize that Datan and Aviram, the two primary
rebel characters in section seven, the story of the "mishkan,"
are in fact central to the entire rebellion.
This in fact is a conclusion that Moshe himself reaches as the narrative
earlier, and as mapped on the chart above, in response to the rebels' challenge
of "rav lachem" (16:1), Moshe proposes a counter
challenge, the incense test.
Immediately afterwards, in what we termed sections three and four above,
Moshe attempts negotiations with Korach (16:8-11) and then Datan and Aviram
(16:12-15). While perhaps indicative of
a divide and conquer strategy, this most probably reflects Moshe's working
hypothesis that the different groups of rebels possess different agendas and
interests. While Korach is interested in
priesthood or even the High Priesthood, the other leaders are probably
interested in something else all together.
Yet immediately after his fruitless
dialogue with Datan and Aviram (16:12-14), Moshe turns to God in supplication
and requests that God "have no regard for their offering"
(16:15). Suddenly, Moshe realizes that
he faces far more than just a cultic conflict.
In fact, he realizes that it is the agenda of Datan and Aviram that lies
behind the actions of the 250 Israelite princes who have consented to the
incense challenge. The challenge of rav
lachem was in fact issued in the plural; it is a challenge to the priestly
leadership of Aharon and the personal leadership of Moshe. Moshe too now realizes that the happenings at
the Tent of Meeting are integrally connected with the political plotting in the
tents of Korach, Datan and Aviram. But
what exactly was the agenda of Datan and Aviram?
In fact, this is not particularly
difficult. At near the midpoint of the
narrative, in section four of our seven stage story, Datan and Aviram respond to
Moshe's summons by stating the following.
not go up. Isn't it enough that you have
brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the
desert, but you make yourself a prince over us? But you have not brought us to
a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and
vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes
of men? We will not go up. (16:12-14)
Datan and Aviram
refer to the fact that Moshe has failed to bring them to "a land flowing
with milk and honey." In doing so,
they reference a familiar term for the promised land. In revealing himself to Moshe at the burning
bush, God commanded Moshe to inform the Children of Israel that he was going
take them up from Egypt to the "place of the Canaanites, the Chiti
etc.," to "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Shemot
3:17). Moshe's political career and
relationship with the Children of Israel begins with this phrase.
This key term surfaces again at
another crucial juncture in Moshe's career as leader, in the incident of the
spies. The spies agree that the land
they have scouted is indeed a "land flowing with milk and honey"
(13:27). But the second attribute of the
land identified by God as the destination constitutes a problem. It is currently the place of the assorted
Canaanite tribes. In clear contradiction
to the divine political plan presented by Moshe to the people back in Egypt (Shemot
3:17) stating that God was going to "take them up" (a'aleh),
the spies claim that "we are not able to go up (la'alot) for
they are stronger than we" (13:31).
In referencing this term, Datan and
Aviram place the blame for the failure to arrive in a land flowing with milk
and honey, the lack of a bountiful inheritance of fields and vineyards,
directly at Moshe's doorstep. Rather
than the result of the spies' contradiction of God, the people's complaints or
divine wrath, the failure is all Moshe's fault.
Moreover, by referring to "a land flowing with milk and honey"
without any other modifiers such as "the land of the Canaanite" or
"the land promised to the forefathers," Datan and Aviram imply that
any land that flows with milk and honey would have sufficed. A proper leader would have drawn such
conclusions in response to the report of the spies. If the Canaanites are too mighty, let us find
another land that flows with milk and honey, one that we can conquer. Dying in the desert is not a political
In fact, Datan and Aviram imply even
more. In rendering the
stock complaint of "Why have you brought us up (he'elitanu) from Egypt?"
(Shemot 17:3, Bamidbar 20:5, 21:5), Datan and Aviram replace the
with the phrase "a land flowing with milk and honey (16:13). The entire program was flawed from the very
start. Egypt was the place that flowed
with milk and honey. In opening and
closing their words with the claim that "we will not go up" (lo
na'aleh) (16:12, 14), Datan and Aviram refuse to appear in front of
Moshe. He is not their ruler and they
reject his summons. Yet their words
carry far deeper meaning. In echoing
both God's promise (Shemot 3:17) and the words of the spies (13:31),
they side with the spies. Going up from Egypt, a
perfectly fine land flowing with milk and honey was a tragic error. They will not go up to Canaan,
not now and not ever. They will
certainly not wait to die, so that their children can resume the journey up to
While Datan and Aviram accuse Moshe
of despotism, of making himself a prince (16:13) and of wanting to "gouge
out the eyes" of those who oppose him (16:14), of taking to much power for
himself and his family, of rav lachem (16:3), their words display their
true agenda. In complaining that Moshe
has brought them out of a land of milk and honey "to kill them in the
desert" (16:13), Datan and Aviram state their real agenda. Dying in the desert is not a political
Let us return to the assembly of
Korach, the 250 princes of Israel,
who gathered against Moshe, and despite veiled and unveiled warnings persisted
in the incense challenge. Did they share
Datan and Aviram's bitterness regarding leaving Egypt
and the original plan to travel to Canaan? Did
they, too, blame Moshe for the consequences of the spies' mission? Did they,
too, disagree with the passive acceptance of God's decree to die in the desert
and postpone the journey until the next generation? Did they, too, entertain
the thought that perhaps dying in the desert was Moshe's idea?
While we can never know the answer
to these questions, the structure of the rebellion narrative reminds us that
these questions must be raised. The
goings on in and at the "mishkan" of Datan and Aviram, the
claims of Datan and Aviram and perhaps
even the philosophy of Datan and Aviram constitute key elements of the
This point can also be grasped by
apprehending the structure of Sefer Bamidbar. From a chronological and thematic
perspective, the book can be thought of as consisting of four parts. The breakdown runs as follows:
Arrangement of the camp,
preparations for travel, relevant halakhot
The first journey, Midbar Paran
narrative, sin of spies, relevant halakhot
Rebellion of Korach, its
aftermath, relevant halakhot
The fortieth year – leadership
transition, battles, preparation for entering the land etc.
While parts one and
two take place during the second year in the desert, part four of the book
picks up in the fortieth year in the desert.
In fact, the events of the thirty-eight year interlude, the "year
per day" that God promises as punishment to the Children of Israel
(14:34), constitute a kind of missing history.
They are lost years, the history of a lost generation forever hidden
from our view. The story of Korach and
his rebellion, part three of the Book of Bamidbar constitutes a notable
exception to this rule. It is in fact
the only narrative of those years reported in the Torah.
When and where did the events take
place? The Torah gives us neither a time nor a place. The answer is sometime, somewhere. Sometime and somewhere in the vast emptiness
of time and space that comprises a forty years journey to nowhere. It happens sometime and somewhere after the
sin of the spies and the awful decree of God.
The point is that the story of the
rebellion and the motivation of the Israelite princes who joined Korach's
assembly cannot be analyzed without this textual, chronological and existential
context. The decree of forty years
wandering in the desert and the decree of an entire generation's death are not
normal national programs. They
constitute unique circumstances, more than capable of generating unique
psychological, existential and political dynamics. Even if the 250 didn't fully share Datan and
Aviram's motivation and program, the objective context cannot be ignored.
To close the circle, let us engage
in some speculation. While doing so is
hazardous, it is often enjoyable. Did
the Israelite princes regret leaving Egypt? Did they believe that dying
in the desert was Moshe's idea? Most probably not. Did the members of Korach's assembly not
realize what awaited them at the door of the Tent of Meeting? Did they not
realize they risked recreating the exact death of Nadav and Avihu? Logic would
seem to indicate they should have realized.
But if so, we are back to square
one. Why did they persist? On some
level, the answer can be stated in one word: despair. Despair is a powerful psychological
phenomenon. Under its influence, we can
suppress that which we truly know and imagine ourselves to know other things
all together. How hard would it be to
forget, ignore or partially repress the death of Nadav and Avihu? Under the influence
of despair, how hard would it be to engage in pseudo logic and reasoning? While
God had not commanded Nadav and Avihu's offering and it was truly "a
foreign fire," the incense test constitutes a different story all
together. It is commanded by Moshe and
will surely not result in divine wrath.
Forgetting for the moment that they have lost faith in Moshe and his
leadership, the princes rationalized that the test is proposed by Moshe
himself, the one who speaks for God.
Where despair reigns, logic and consistency cannot expect to find a foothold.
Moreover, under the influence of
despair, how hard would it be to engage in false hope? How hard would it be to
imagine, if just for a minute, that maybe Korach, Datan and Aviram are right?
Maybe Moshe has altered God's message just a little bit. Maybe he is not really the right leader,
maybe the political program can be altered, and maybe others also deserve a
role in the sanctuary service. Under the
influence of despair, all is possible.
But there is more to it than
is. In addition to the dynamics of
despair, suppression, rationalization and imaginary thinking outlined until
this point, we can also identify another possible dynamic, or at least another
contributing element to the processes outlined above.
In confronting Moshe and Aharon,
Korach and his cohorts insist that "the entire congregation is holy and
the Lord is among them" (16:3).
While the issue of Moshe and Aharon's monopoly on leadership is raised,
the claim of holiness constitutes the crucial ideological claim of the assembly. The holiness and sanctity of each member of Israel, the
fact that God is amidst them, seems crucial to the Israelite rebels.
Moshe offers a test that is in fact
attuned to this central claim, the ketoret challenge. But while offering the "test,"
Moshe sends a message. Each and every
individual member of Israel
is not holy enough to merit offering incense.
He who tries shall meet the fate of Nadav and Avihu. They will be "kadosh" in a
different sense, in the way connoted by "bikrovai ekadesh" (Vayikra
10:3). They will be the sanctified by
the presence of God in a different way all together, by being consumed by
divine fire. They will be sanctified as
those who have come too close and offered their very selves.
As I have argued, the Israelite
princes most probably catch the reference, they get the message. Yet driven by a need to believe in their own
holiness, a deep desire to feel that God is amidst them and with them, they
persist in their quixotic and self-defeating quest. If God is with them and they are indeed holy,
they should emerge unscathed from the test.
If God is with them and they are indeed holy, Moshe is incorrect, and there
is no need for an elite cast of priests.
Each and every member of Israel
is holy. And finally, if they do indeed
die, which fate is the worse, to die on a journey to nowhere, or to die on a
quest for the divine, engaged in his service, sanctified like Nadav and Avihu
as "bikrovai ekadesh"?
In sum, in light of the decree to
die in the desert, the mundane material world holds scant attraction. The regular every day world of action,
progress, motion, development and hope for the future has been rendered mute
and meaningless. They are fated to die
in the desert. Yet the realm of the
divine, of transcendence and holiness, of the Mishkan, still exists. In this realm the Israelites can progress,
ascend and come in contact with the divine.
In point of fact, the princes are driven by their own need, desire and
hope for holiness. The underlying
dynamic of the rebel's story is the human need for meaning and holiness.
To close, reading the motivation of
the Israelite princes as stemming from a different kind of hope, the need for
meaning and holiness, sheds new light on the relationship between the rebellion
and the story of the spies. In
attributing all to Moshe, and rejecting all possibility of the Land of Canaan as the land "flowing with
milk and honey" for which the Children of Israel are destined, Datan and
Aviram continue and expand on the sin of the spies. The spies contradicted God's claim that he
would "bring up" the Children of Israel to a land flowing with milk
and honey (Shemot 3:17). The
spies lack faith that God is with the people.
Therefore, they cannot "go up" (13:31), the local inhabitants
are just too strong. Datan and Aviram
take this absence of God to a whole new level.
The whole idea of "going up" is rotten to its core. Canaan was
never the land flowing with milk and honey, and Moshe has never spoken for
anyone but himself.
But the spies never doubted Moshe or
God in this way. The sin of these
princes of Israel
and their claim that "we cannot go up" stems from their fear of the
inhabitants of the land (14:9). This
fear in turn stems from a particular perception, a perception of the
inhabitants of the land and of their selves.
The spies claim that they appeared as no more than grasshoppers in the
eyes of the "giants" that inhabit the land (14:33). More crucially, the spies preface this claim
with the statement that "we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers"
The spies perceive themselves as no
more than minute beings, not even human in comparison to the "giants"
that inhabit the land. Moreover, the gap
is even greater than that between men of stature and minute insects. The inhabitants of the land are the legendary
nefilim (14:33), the quasi divine beings mentioned in Bereishit
6:1-4, the offspring of the "sons of God" (6:4). The root of the sin of the spies, the root of
their fears, lies in their self-perception.
They are no more than insects, less than fully human. They are not holy, God is not amidst them,
and there is no way he will help them in their battle against the mighty
inhabitants of Canaan. While God may be able to combat even the nefilim,
why would he side with the less than human, with mere insects?
From this perspective, the princes
of the assembly, the assembly of Korach, proclaim exactly the opposite. In a grandiose reversal of the sin of the
spies, the assembly claims that all are holy and God is amidst them. They are not insects, but rather a kind of
divine being. God is with them and
amidst them. God would welcome the
entrance of each and every member of Israel, his service and his
offering of incense into his sanctuary.
In the final analysis, it is
possible to claim that the Israelite princes stand on the opposite end of the
spectrum from both Datan and Aviram and the spies. Unlike Datan and Aviram, they do not doubt
the original divine plan, nor reject the divine decree to wait for the rise of
a new generation and resumption of the journey.
Unlike the spies, they do not doubt their own self worth, their
worthiness, nor God's presence with them.
In this sense, they serve to correct the underlying dynamic of the sin
of the spies.
Their error consists of going too
far, of claiming too much for themselves.
In the language of the parasha, they commit their own sin of
"rav lachem" (16:3, 7).
They exaggerate their own self worth and holiness. In truth, every member of Israel is not
worthy to bring incense. Nevertheless,
their renewed sense of worth, holiness and God's presence represents an
important step on the journey of preparing a generation capable and worthy of
entering the land. It represents an
intermediate stage of that forty years journey to developing a true identity of
the community of God, confident in God's presence, and yet humbly committed to
1) The shiur above follows the
Ramban's position on the chronology and explanation of the rebellion. See the latter part of the Ramban's comment
to 16:1. In contrast see Ibn Ezra 16:1
(cited by the Ramban). Read
17:6-26. Evaluate the Ibn Ezra's proof
from this parasha.
2) Reread 16:1-3. Now see Shemot 13:2 and 19:22. See the Ramban and the Ibn Ezra again. Evaluate the evidence for the claim that the
250 princes are all first born. Explain
how this claim resolves a central problem discussed in the shiur
above. Now see Rashi 16:3 and
15:40-41. Also see Shemot
19:6. Think again about the meaning of
3) The Ramban (16:1, 14:17) claims that
Moshe's "not praying" after the sin of the spies helped pave the way
for the rebellion. Read Bamidbar
14:1-23. Compare to Shemot
32:9-14 and Shemot 34:5-9.
Evaluate the Ramban's statement.
4) Reread 16:1-4. See Rashi 16:4. Now see 14:1-6. Can Rashi's claim be moved further back? Now
see 16:20-22 and the Ibn Ezra 16:4 and 16:22.
What is the alternative to Rashi? Look carefully at the language of
16:22. What kind of prayer is this?