If you're looking for a tale of pride, deception and unbridled self-interest, along with the imagery befitting a Hollywood film, it's hard to do better than this week's Torah portion.
It has it all: An ambitious upstart, Korah, rebels against Moses and Aharon by joining with two schemers, Dathan and Abiram, and enlisting the support of 250 other men.
They base their coup on the charge that as leader, Moses has engaged in nepotism by granting the priesthood to his brother Aharon and his descendents, and in doing so, has concentrated power in his family. Korah seeks Aharon's priesthood for himself.
"All the community are holy, all of them," they fume. "Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?"
Moses pleads with the insurgents to cease, appealing to reason by saying that Korah was already a leader, in a position he held, like Moses, by divine right. By challenging the Almighty's wisdom to appoint rulers, he would be rebelling against God.
"Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you," Moses queries, "do you seek the priesthood, too?"
It did not end. Finally, Moses challenges the rebels to offer up their own incense and to see who's truly fit for priestly service.
According to the Midrash, Korah knew that only one person would emerge alive, but Korah — who prophesied that the righteousness of his descendants would merit his survival — allows all of his 250 comrades to face certain death by offering up a forbidden fire.
In the end, the rebellion fails, and the conspirators are themselves consumed by supernatural fire. Afterwards, Dathan and Abiram, their families, and Korah's associates are swallowed alive by a hole in the earth.
Given how definitively the Torah demonstrates Korah's evil intent, and the concept that the names of the truly wicked should not even be mentioned, it's curious that our tradition names the entire portion after him. Later on in the Book of Numbers, but not in this week's portion, we even learn that the sons of Korah, who had presumably fallen to their deaths, "did not die."
Perhaps something positive can be gleaned from this episode.
All Jews Are Holy
Korah himself was correct when he asserted that the entire Jewish people were holy. He aspired to spiritual greatness, a worthy goal that all of us would do well to apply to our own lives. His mistake was in challenging the Divine order. Had he chosen to be a righteous follower, as opposed to an ambitious conspirator, things would have turned out quite differently.
Similarly, each one of us has been endowed with talents to the point that not one of us is identically alike. The question is will we seek to maximize our individual potentials in the attainment of spiritual perfection or will we try to be people we're not?
As for Korah's apparently immortal sons, the classical commentaries say that they desired to repent. So they were swallowed alive, but were later released from their subterranean hell and went on to father a progeny of righteous individuals.
The Jewish concept of repentance, known in Hebrew as teshuvah, is a powerful force that can literally return the fallen to greatness. At some point in our lives, we've all been like Korah; we've all rebelled. This week's Torah portion reminds us that all is not lost, and that there's plenty of work to be done.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: [email protected]