Korach: Saying No, Saying Yes

“Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt,” the Israelites say in last week’s Torah portion. In this week’s portion, Korach, the Israelites accept that they will never go back to Egypt. But some of them do choose a new leader: Korach, a Levite and a cousin of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Korach argues that all the people are holy, so they should all have the same rights as Moses and Aaron. He sounds like an egalitarian, but his real agenda is to seize power for himself. (See my earlier blog, Korach: Bald Demands.)

Korach is backed by 250 “leaders of the assembly”, and they publicly confront Moses and Aaron, 251 against two. Meanwhile, two leaders in the tribe of Reuben, Datan and Aviram, rebel against Moses a different way. They refuse to come when Moses summons them, and send a message denigrating his leadership. Moses responds to Korach’s challenge with a test: Korach, his 250 leaders, and Aaron will all put burning coals in their fire-pans, then add incense as an offering to God.

And it will be that the man whom God chooses, he is the holy one …  (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:7)

The next day, when they all gather with their fire-pans at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, God’s “glory” (a divine cloud or fire) appears. God offers to “choose” Aaron by consuming all 251 men opposing him and Moses. They reply to God that it would not be fair to punish all 250 for Korach’s wrongdoing. God then orders Moses to tell everyone:

Get away from around the mishkan of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. (Numbers 16:24)

mishkan = dwelling-place; sanctuary

The word mishkan appears in the Torah 94 times before this point, and every one of those times it refers to the sanctuary that the Israelites construct as a dwelling-place for God. I suspect that here mishkan has a double meaning: it refers both to the tents of the three ringleaders, and to their religious tenet that everyone is already holy.

Moses leads the 251 men with fire-pans over to where Datan and Aviram are camped. Then he warns them to stand back, and they obey.

They went up away from the mishkan of Korach, Datan, and Aviram, from all around; and Datan and Aviram went out, taking a stand at the entrance of their tents, with their wives and their children and their little ones. (Numbers 16:27)

Korach does not have the same physical “dwelling place” or mishkan as Datan and Aviram, because he belongs to a different tribe. They are Reubenites; he is a Levite. The tribe of Reuben camps to the south of, and at a distance from, God’s mishkan. The tribe of Levi camps in a close circle around God’s mishkan. Datan and Aviram might pitch their tents side by side, but Korach cannot. Thus when the leaders of the assembly move away from the mishkan of  all three men, they are separating themselves from the mental sanctuary of believing everything is Moses and Aaron’s fault, and a revolt is justified because everyone is holy.

The assembly also moves to a safe physical distance from the tents of Datan and Aviram. Now it is up to God to respond to the Israelites’ demand for a new leader. Here is God’s first “No”:

Then the earth opened its mouth, and it swallowed them and their households, and all the humans who belonged to Korach, and all the property. (Numbers 16:32)

I’ll set aside for a future posting the moral problem that the small children in the three ringleaders’ families were also swallowed alive. The main thing the Torah is concerned about is that Korach, Datan, and Aviram are killed through obvious divine intervention.

One way to say “No” when people argue for a foolish change is to eliminate the ringleaders in a dramatic way. Does it work? The Torah does not give us a clue, because God immediately goes on to the second way to say “No”. My opinion is that eliminating the ringleaders can stop a rebellion, by making everyone else too afraid to speak up. But it will not change people’s hearts and minds. They will not recognize that the rebel leaders were wrong, and they will still believe life would be better if the leaders in office were ousted.

Meanwhile, the 250 leaders of the assembly have started offering incense on their fire-pans, despite what just happened to Korach. God responds with a second “No”.

Then fire went out from God and consumed the 250 men who were bringing forward the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

What is wrong with these 250 men? Do they really believe God will accept their incense offering? First they stand with Korach against Moses. Then they back away from the mishkan of Korach (his theory of reality) and from the tents of Datan and Aviram. Yet right after they have saved themselves from going the way of the three leading rebels, they put incense in the fire-pans, still hoping that God will accept their offerings!

According to the “Documentary Hypothesis” that the Torah text was assembled from several different sources, this inconsistency may be due to bad editing. Richard Elliott Friedman, a 20th-century scholar, proposes that the sections about Datan and Aviram come from the J source, while the sections about Korach and his 250 followers come from the P source.

But if we read this week’s Torah portion as a single story, then I have to conclude that the 250 “leaders of the assembly” are hopelessly inconsistent because they experience so much inner conflict between the desire for an egalitarian religion, and the reality of the organization chart God imposes on them. I share Moses and Aaron’s sympathy for the 250 wafflers, and I wish they could be enlightened about graceful defeat, instead of eliminated.

The children of Israel also feel sympathy for the 250, and believe the men were serving God. But they make the mistake of blaming Moses and Aaron for the destruction, rather than God.

All the assembly of the children of Israel grumbled the next day against Moses and against Aaron, saying: You had the people of God put to death! (Numbers 17:6)

Thus the second way of saying “No” to the rebellion does not work. The people are still complaining and slandering Moses and Aaron. So God says “No” a third way; God starts a plague to wipe out everyone.

At this point, the “God” character in the story appears to be fed up with the Israelites. I don’t blame “Him”. I admit that when I face people who persist in refusing to accept reality, and  persist in doing things that just make the situation worse, I get fed up. Sometimes I throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise. In other words, I get rid of these people by walking away from them.

But Moses and Aaron do not give up. When the plague begins, Moses sends Aaron outside with incense burning in his fire-pan. This is not an action that God has ever authorized. But the plague abruptly stops. My guess is that when the Israelites who are sick, but not dead yet, see Aaron standing “between the dead and the living” with incense smoking in his pan, they have a change of heart. They realize that Moses and Aaron want them to live, and they drop their notion that these two leaders are the problem rather than the solution. Once they drop this notion, God stops the plague.

Moses and Aaron are saying “Yes” to the Israelites—not to their slanderous complaints, but to their right to continue living. And it works; the people change their attitude, and recover from the plague of false accusations.

God follows up with a second way of saying “Yes” to the Israelites, asking Moses to arrange another test. In this test, the leader of each tribe must bring his staff, with his name inscribed on it, to the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff will stand for the whole tribe of Levi.

And it will be that the man whom I choose, matehu will sprout; and so I will make the grumblings over me subside, the grumblings of the children of Israel which they grumble against you. (Numbers 17:20)

matehu = his staff; his tribe

The next day, Aaron’s staff has sprouted, flowered, and borne ripe almonds. Nobody is punished. But everyone sees that God has said “Yes” to both Aaron and the Levites. The tribe of Levi will bloom and bear fruit, and they, under Aaron’s authority, are the ones authorized to handle holy matters.

Does this second way of saying “Yes” work? I think so, even though the next thing that happens in this Torah portion is that the people express despair.

Then the children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying: Hey! We expire! We have become lost, all of us have become lost. Anyone who comes close to the mishkan of God will die. Will we ever be done with expiring? (17:27-28)

This time, the Israelites ask Moses a question instead of grumbling. They tell him their anxiety, instead of complaining or arguing that he is wrong. So I think that the second way of saying “Yes” does work, though not as dramatically as the first way. If only the Torah had recorded Moses’s response! I can imagine Moses replying with a third “Yes”, taking their anxiety seriously and telling the people both how he will help them, and what hard truths they must face.

Does a “Yes” always work better than a “No”? Not quite. I learned as a parent that in a dangerous situation, an unequivocal “No” has to come before any explanation. Furthermore, some kinds of “Yes” do not work—for example, a “Yes” that is merely caving in to the opposition, or a “Yes” that pretends everyone will get what they want when it’s not really possible.

Still, I admire Moses and Aaron for their “Yes” when they stand up for the value of the lives of the people infected with God’s plauge. And I admire the “Yes” of God’s benign test of the trival staffs, with its miraculous flowering.

In times of opposition, may we all receive wisdom about how to say “No” and how to say “Yes”.

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