The Israelites set off from Mount Sinai in formation, ready to march into Canaan.1
Yet when their “promised land” is just over the next ridge, the men become so terrified by reports of giants that they refuse to cross the border.2 Fed up with Moses’ insistence on obeying God, they say: “Let’s pick a leader and go back to Egypt!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:4) They do not doubt that Moses is God’s chosen prophet and leader. The problem is that they no longer believe God will help them take the land.3
The reverse is true in this week’s Torah portion, Korach. Korach and his 250 rebels want to continue serving God, but they reject Moses and Aaron as leaders.4
They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have plenty! Because all the assembly, all of them, are kedoshim, and God is in their midst. So why do you elevate yourselves above the congregation of God?” (Numbers 16:3)
kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = holy (plural), consecrated; segregated for religious use only; personally dedicated to obeying God’s moral and religious rules. (Singular: kadosh, קָדוֹשׁ. From the root verb kadash, קָדַשׁ = be holy, be reserved for sacred rather than common use.)
After checking with God by falling on his face,5 Moses tells Korach and the Levites:
“In the morning God will make known who is his and who is kadosh and who he brings close to himself; [God] will choose who he brings close to himself. Do this: Korach and all [your] assembly, take for yourselves fire-pans, and place embers in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow. And it will be the man whom God will choose, he is the kadosh one. You have plenty, sons of Levi!” (Numbers 16:5-7)
Is Korach’s speech true? Are all the Israelites holy? Did Moses and Aaron elevate themselves?
Are all the Israelites holy?
In the strict sense of the word kadosh, it is impossible for everyone in a community to be holy, just as it is impossible for every bowl or basin to be consecrated. The copper basin a priest uses to catch and splash the blood from an animal sacrifice is kadosh because it is reserved for religious rituals. A copper basin used to make dinner is not kadosh.
Similarly, not all members of a community can spend most of their time as religious functionaries. The community cannot survive unless most of its people are shepherds, farmers, craftsmen, millers, bakers, weavers, etc. Only a minority of the Israelites can be segregated and reserved for protecting and transporting the sanctuary (the job of the Levites) and conducting religious rituals (the job of the priests).
Yet elsewhere in the Torah, God says:
“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you keep my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession among all the peoples. For all the earth is mine; but you, you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a kadosh nation …” (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)
“You shall be kedoshim because I am kadosh …” (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:2)
While God may be distinguishing the possible holiness of the Israelites from the ordinariness of the other peoples of the world, it is more likely that God uses the word kadosh in these statements to mean “virtuous and obedient to God”. The statement in Exodus is followed by the revelation and the “Ten Commandments”. The statement in Leviticus is immediately followed by 17 principles for moral and religious behavior, from respecting your parents to loving your neighbor as yourself.
God did not say that the people were already holy in the sense of being good to other people and obedient to God. God asked them to work on becoming holy in that way.
But Korach says everyone in the assembly of Israel is kadosh. Even if he uses the word kadosh to mean “virtuous and obedient to God”, he is wrong. Throughout the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness they rebel and complain about God and God’s arrangements, and periodically someone violates one of God’s rules. They are still a long way from being a holy nation.
When Korach alludes to God’s phrase“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, he is really more interested in the “kingdom of priests” part. In fact, he and the 250 other rebellious Levites are more interested in priesthood for themselves than in universal priesthood.6
Moses hears this subtext. After announcing the incense-pan test,
Moses said to Korach: “Listen, please, sons of Levi. Is it too little for you that the God of Israel separated you, out of all the assembly of Israel, to bring close to him, to serve the service of the sanctuary of God and to stand before the assembly to minister to them? [God] brought you close, and all your brother Levites with you; now do you seek the priesthood too?” (Numbers 16:8-10)
Korach does not reply. But he and his 250 Levites return the next morning with their fire-pans and incense, hoping to pass the test. They are consumed by divine fire.
Did Moses and Aaron elevate themselves?
The rebel Levites resent their positions as assistants to the priests, doing less glamorous jobs.6 Korach argues that leadership should be shared, either by all Israelites or at least by all Levites.
Yet God chose Moses to transmit God’s commands and instructions—probably because Moses did not want to elevate himself. When God was recruiting him at the burning bush, Moses kept finding excuses to get out of the job.7
Aaron did not elevate himself, either. God picked him to assist his brother Moses in negotiations with the pharaoh of Egypt.8 Then when God gave instructions for the sanctuary and its rituals, God told Moses to consecrate Aaron and his sons as the priests.9
Who should lead?
Who are the proper leaders, civil and religious, for a large community? The Torah answers that the top leaders should be chosen by God, or descended from those chosen by God.
God chooses Moses, and then Joshua, to govern the Israelites. After a period with no central authority, God tells the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as king, and then to replace him with David. The descendants of King David rule Judah for centuries.
God chooses Aaron and his sons as the community’s priests. Later God declares a covenant with Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, making him and all his descendants priests.10 Yet the first book of Samuel acknowledges that sometimes the sons of a good priest are worthless.11
Today, we had better not count on God to appoint our leaders. Those who claim divine appointment probably suffer from inflated egos and skewed thinking. There are no definitive miracles to prove God’s choices today, and those who deduce God’s will from omens and mysterious coincidences are like idol-worshippers in the Torah.12
So when we have a chance to vote for leaders in government, or to choose our own religious leaders, who should we pick?
One answer is to find out who is kadosh in the sense of being virtuous (acting for the benefit of others) and obedient to God (to the still, small inner voice of God, not to the rules of a particular religious sect). We can judge potential leaders by their actions, not by genealogy or by claims of greatness.
And whatever jobs we end up with, we are all called upon to become kinder, more honest, more respectful, more insightful, and more aware of the divine in everything. In other words, more holy.
- Numbers 10:11-28. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Four Directions of Service.
- Numbers 13:25-33. See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Caleb Waiting.
- See my post Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.
- The Torah portion interweaves two stories of rebellion: one featuring Korach and 250 fellow Levites, and one featuring chieftains from the tribe of Reuven. Modern critical scholarship assigns the two stories to different sources, combined awkwardly by a later redactor. The Levite rebellion is usually identified as a P text, while the Reuvenite rebellion is attributed to the J source. The story of their rebellion and punishment appears in Numbers 16:12-14 and 16:25-34. See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
- See my post Korach: Face Down.
- Korach is a Levite in the Kehat clan (Numbers 16:1), which transports the most holy objects in the sanctuary (Numbers 4:15). Moses and Aaron are also descendants of Kehat (Exodus 6:18-21), and are Korach’s first cousins. The Torah does not specify the clans of the other 250 Levite rebels, but all the Levites are relatives of the priests, Aaron and his sons, and all of them have duties regarding the sanctuary.
- Exodus 3:1-4:17.
- Exodus 4:14-16, 4:27.
- Exodus 28:1, Exodus 28:36-38, Leviticus 8:1-36.
- Numbers 25:11-13.
- Numbers 16:23-35.
- Deuteronomy 18:9-10.