Parashat Korach is the thirty-eighth weekly portion in the Torah and the fifth in the Book of Numbers (16:1-18:32) — quite appropriate for the lone narrative to occupy the 38-year time jump. The previous portion is unambiguously set in the second year in the Wilderness, while the next brings us to the fortieth and final year of the Israelites’ sojourn. This portion, containing Korah’s rebellion (Chapter 16), the immediate aftermath (Chapter 17) and a corpus of laws designed to prevent a recurrence (Chapter 18), falls in the middle, though it is unclear exactly when.
Korah, first cousin to Moses and Aaron, challenges their religious leadership, while Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben, challenge Moses’ political leadership. At first glance, their complaints seem to have some merit. Korah declares: “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” Dathan and Abiram proclaim: “Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us?” Still, the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers) presents Korah’s revolt as the epitome of “a dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven,” i.e. insincere. What is wrong with the populist arguments advanced by Korah and his allies?
The Torah itself indicates why there is reason to question their motives: “They rose up before Moses, together with some of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown.” Though Korah, Dathan and Abiram declare that they are speaking for the common man, they recruit a select group of the powerful and famous. This tells us that their challenge to Moses and Aaron is based not on a sincere desire to democratize opportunity, but rather to seize positions of great power for themselves. Thus, God’s response is fierce: Korah’s group, which offers incense outside the Tabernacle, is consumed by fire, while Dathan, Abiram and their families are swallowed up by the earth. (Korah’s sons, however, do not flow his self-destructive path.)
The portion from the Prophets is from the First Book of Samuel (11:14-12:22), in which the eponymous prophet asks, after appointing a king as per the people’s request: “Whose donkey have I taken?” This echoes Moses’ protestation: “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them,” after being challenged by Korah and his allies. Interestingly, I Chronicles 6:18-23 traces Samuel’s lineage all the way back to Korah — and in this section, he corrects the historical record: “Then Samuel said to the people, ‘It is the Lord who made Moses and Aaron and brought your ancestors up out of Egypt.’”