The Korach Test

In the Bible, Korach mounts a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. "All of the congregation are holy," says Korach, "so why should you be elevated above God's congregation?" Korach is joined by Datan, Aviram, and 250 other people. Moses is very upset by this, and summons Korach, Dathan and Avirum to a negotiation. They refuse, and instead Korach mounts a massive rally. He spends the entire night campaigning to bring out the people.

When all is done, God creates a miracle and the earth swallows up Korach, Dathan, and Aviram.

The sages of the Mishna see this conflict as an example of an "argument that is not for the sake of heaven, which will not endure." An argument which is for the sake of heaven, such as those between the sages Hillel and Shammai, will endure forever. I would think, however, that it should be the opposite. An argument which is for the sake of heaven would be one which lends itself to peaceful resolution. An insincere argument should be the one to endure, because the parties are not arguing about the issue. If so, no resolution could be gained by discussing the complaint, because it is not the real issue.

What is an argument that is "not for the sake of heaven?" It is when one side argues from hatred of the other side, not because of a specific issue. The ostensible cause is not the root cause. An argument that is "for the sake of heaven," is when the two sides even like and trust each other, but disagree on the issue under discussion. It is this type of argument that will endure, because each side sincerely understands the issue differently, and, at the same time, respects the other party.

There are three elements in the Korach Test: 1. The person doing the arguing. 2. The topic under discussion. 3. The way in which the negotiation, or lack thereof, is carried out.

A person who is humble and kind is someone who can be trusted. The Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai were both of exemplary character. They liked each other very much, and, despite their numerous disagreements in the Talmud, their children married into each other's families. When someone is humble, they will become wise. They never refuse a message because they don't like the messenger. Such a person will pass the Korach Test. An arrogant, egotistical or vindictive person will not. Do not deal with them.

Hillel and Shammai argued about practical Jewish law. They were seeking the best way to fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments. Korach, on the other hand, was arguing about positions of power and influence. There was no deeper principle motivating his rebellion beyond a desire to replace the current leadership with his own. Of course, that doesn't sound good to the general public, so Korach couched it in highly idealistic language: "The entire congregation is holy, and the Lord is in their midst. Why should you (Moses and Aaron) therefore be elevated above the congregation of the Lord?"

When someone's core argument involves an "us versus them" situation, beware. This person has failed the Korach Test. Even if they find the most elevated justification for their argument, if its core is divisive, it is a dangerous argument. In the business world, there is a strong rule for negotiations. The best kind of approach is, "Win-win or no deal." Korach's argument was a win-lose one. This is a sure sign of an insincere argument and an untrustworthy negotiating partner.

The third test is the way in which negotiations are held. To pass the Korach Test, one must prefer quiet and substantive negotiations. That is what Moses offered Korach, but he refused to come. Instead, he organized a demonstration against Moses and Aaron. He waged his campaign in the media, as it were. He was not interested in solving the problem, he was interested in scoring points against his adversary. When someone publicly attacks the other party, they are failing the Korach Test. They are not interested in a solution, they are interested in victory.

Let us apply this test to current events. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs lends itself to this important evaluation. Specifically, let us look at the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

  1. The test of character: Abbas is as corrupt as the day is long. He is in the 11th year of a four-year term. The large sums of money the international community gives to his Palestinian Authority has made him and his cronies very wealthy. He publicly praises terrorists, and names streets and squares in their honor. Just a couple of days ago, a 17 year old terrorist murdered a 13 year old girl in her bed. Abbas' Palestinian authority web site published a picture of the killer, not to condemn him, but to honor him as a "martyr." This is par for the course. He oversees giving thousands of dollars to terrorists and their families. Some of the most brutal and disgusting killers have met with him and been honored by him. FAIL.

  2. The test of topic: Abbas constantly poses an "us versus them" argument. He misses no opportunity to accuse Israel of the most disgusting crimes. A couple of weeks ago, he accused a group of rabbis (that does not exist) of demanding that the Israeli government poison the Palestinian water supply in order to perpetrate a genocide. This was simply a blood libel, and even Abbas was forced to retract a week later. But he had made this claim at a meeting of the European Parliament, and received a warm applause for it. If he would be a sincere negotiating partner, he would be interested in improving the lives of his constituents. Instead, he seeks to delegitimize Israel in every possible forum. FAIL.

  3. The test of negotiating style: While Israel repeats its willingness to negotiate directly ad nauseum, Abbas' Palestinian Authority refuses to show up. Instead, they do exactly what Korach did. They organize demonstrations, BDS movements, lawsuits at the international Court of Justice and endless anti-Israel UN resolutions. If someone is unwilling to negotiate real issues in a direct and quiet manner, they are an insincere negotiating partner, and must be avoided. The poisonous incitement that Abbas continues to spew has caused much loss of life and misery. The educational system in his Palestinian Authority refuses to tone down the anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli messages of hate. FAIL.

When someone fails the Korach test so spectacularly, why would anyone in their right mind want to negotiate with him? Instead, we should follow the approach of Moses himself. Moses did reach out to Korach, Dathan and Aviram. When they refused to come negotiate, Moses knew that they had failed the test and were not interested in reconciliation. What did he do in that situation?

He called on God to unmask the truth of the argument. What was important was that people know that Moses's choices of leadership came straight from On High. Therefore, God obliged by opening the earth to swallow up Korach and his followers. We don't have the ability to have God perform an open miracle like this in our day and age, so what can we do?

Expose. Expose their hypocrisy, make their corruption well known. Most importantly, expose them for being the Jew haters that they are. Expose them for being the terrorist huggers that they are. Let the world know how the most vile murders are praised and financially rewarded by the Palestinian Authority. Shine the light brightly on the dangerous hatred that Palestinian Arab children are taught on a daily basis. That is the first step in fighting back.

At the same time, we must become more and more like Hillel and Shammai. Israel must be humble, must be kind, and must be devoted to God. A humble and kind people, loyal to God's morality, can not enable evil. We must treat the stranger with love, but not be confused by evil people spouting elevated nonsense. We must take responsibility for all the residents of the land, and do that which is right in God's eyes. And we must know that you can't negotiate with people who fail the Korach Test.

I believe we must wage a relentless war against hatred and racism. This is a communications war, and it is crucial. The Palestinian Arabs must be attacked by messaging that contradicts their violent perceptions. The real moderate Palestinian Arabs, those who pass the Korach Test, should be found and engaged. If we do not wage this spiritual war quickly, we may find ourselves fighting another type of war. Let us pray that this doesn't happen, and that hearts will change. It actually happened in the Korach story to a man named On Ben Pelet, whose wife talked him out of continuing to rebel with Korach, thus saving his life. May many lives be saved, may none be lost, and may peace finally come.

Take the incense test

Two things would happen to the Levite guard who fell asleep on watch. He would be beaten by a stick and his clothing would be burnt. The latter punishment is a unique one! Why burn his clothing?

Korach, a wealthy and influential Levite, rebels against Moses and Aaron. He gathers around him 250 members of the tribes of Levy and Reuben to support him in his attack on Moses. They complained that,"The entire congregation is holy so why do you raise yourselves up above them?" In other words, Korach is seeking the high priesthood and his 250 cohorts are seeking the right to serve in the Tabernacle as Kohanim, even though they are not.

Moses then instructs them all to bring incense as a test to determine the justice of their argument. He warns the people of an additional punishment, a miracle involving the earth opening up and swallowing Korach and his immediate partners Datan and Aviram, should God deem their rebellion to be false. The end result was that Korach, his family and his friends, were indeed swallowed up. At the same time the 250 men who had brought the incense in hopes of gaining the status of Kohanim were consumed by fire and died.

The people then complain that Moses has killed God's people! Some commentaries explain that Moses was culpable because he did not warn the 250 incense bringers that doing so carried with it the danger of death. Moses had warned Korach about the earth opening, so why not warn the 250 about the fire that may come from the incense?

God is displeased with this accusation against Moses and smites the people with a plague. Moses immediately dispatches Aaron with incense, the same material, which then stops the plague and saves the rest of the people's lives.

Why, though, is their claim incorrect? Why did Moses not warn the 250 people? Maybe some of them would have refrained from bringing the incense and thus been saved.

Furthermore, one could ask what exactly was wrong with 250 people wanting to be Kohanim? They saw their brothers serving in the Tabernacle performing holy tasks and wanted to have the same opportunity! They desired sanctity, it would seem.

The question centers around the role of the Temple incense in this whole story. The first time we encounter the danger of bringing unauthorized incense was back in Leviticus when Nadav and Avihu died while bringing "a strange fire which was not commanded them." They brought incense. The people saw that incense brought improperly can bring punishment by fiery death. That was their warning. The 250 people should have known that what happened to Nadav and Avihu would happen to them.

And it is the same incense which Aaron used to stop the plague and to save lives. So what is the nature of this incense?

It has a few qualities worth noting. First of all, it is silent. It communicates through aroma, not through words and speeches. Our sages teach us that the incense atoned for evil speak. "Let something which is quiet atone for a sin which is committed in whispers." The incense gives expression to what is happening on the inside of a person, not just the outside.

Secondly, the incense has the aspect of unity. It is not made of one aromatic spice but rather 11 ingredients. Some of them are bitter on their own but add sweetness when combined with others. Our sages compare the galbanum spice to the sinners of Israel who, nonetheless, must join together with all of their nation to create the sweetest aroma. The incense represents unity.

Unity comes about when each individual does not look at him or herself as important because of who they are but because of what they do in the world. When elections come around, some candidates spend time and money telling you how qualified and smart they are. Others will focus more on what they plan to do. Does somebody want to be president, or do they want to lead the nation? Those are two separate things and that is a critical question.

When we focus on who we are as opposed to what we do, we create the conditions that lead to great division. Identity should come through actions and contributions to the world, not through ethnicity or social status or association or any external factor. If I am important for who I am, then others who are similar to me become a threat. Notice how Korach does not say "Let us be Kohanim as well!" Instead, he says "Why should you exalt yourself above the congregation?" Moses and Aaron should step down is what he is saying.

This is what the incense tests. Nadav and Avihu were exceedingly holy and their sin was that they knew it and sought to cement that status by bringing their own unique incense. The incense destroyed them. The 250 Kohain wannabes were not seeking the opportunity to do holy work, they were seeking the status of being Kohanim. The incense revealed what was inside them and destroyed them.

This is why the clothing of the sleepy Levite would be burned. If he were truly committed to honoring God by providing honor guard for the Sanctuary, he would never allow himself to doze. If he is just interested in the honor himself, then his clothing symbolizes that. That is why it gets burned: to teach him that it is not who he is that matters but rather what he does.

When a person is focused on doing good they will rejoice when others do good as they do. There will be unity. When they focus on being important, they will feel threatened and resentful towards other people deemed important. When we focus on contribution, not identity, we will contribute unity to the world.

Failed States, Failed Lives

There was a crisis in the camp of Israel. Korach, a wealthy and popular leader, was challenging Moses and Aaron. Why, argued Korach, should Aaron be the high priest? Is this a classic case of nepotism? Does he deserve the job, or is it because he is Moses's brother? The entire congregation is holy, says Korach, so we should share the wealth.

In order to put these sentiments to rest, God commands Moses to gather the wooden staffs of all of the princes of the tribes. Together with Aaron's staff, these will be placed in the Tabernacle overnight. In the morning, people will see whom God chooses to be His High Priest. When they come back the next morning, Aaron's staff has bloomed. More specifically, it has blossomed with a flower, then has sent forth a shoot, and finally has grown almonds. These three things are very significant.

The famous saying of Hillel goes, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?" These three rhetorical questions are addressed, and may be inspired by, the staff of Aaron. Let me explain.

The flower that blossomed represents the unique gifts of each individual. This is the first part of Hillel's saying, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" We have a primary responsibility to develop our own talents and gifts. If we don't sharpen our own saw, it will never be sharpened.

The shoot that came out implies an outward focus. Indeed, one of the garments of the High Priest was called the "Tzitz," the same word used for shoot in this story. On this garment, which the priest wore on his forehead, was written in the Divine Name. It was intended for all to see and draw inspiration from. It exemplifies the required outward focus of the high priest. Thus, says Hillel, "And if I am for myself alone, what am I?"

The third element of the staff of Aaron was the blossoming of the almonds. Almonds are the quickest of the fruits. The Hebrew word for almond, "Shaked," is also used to mean alacrity and enthusiasm. It implies moving fast, with gusto. Hence, the third element in Hillel's saying matches is perfectly: "And if not now, then when?"

Thus, the ideal man and woman will nurture their gifts and talents, gain education and work to refine their character. This is all done with a goal of service to humanity, not selfish accomplishment. Finally, this person senses the urgency of the mission and does not delay even for a moment. The world needs you now, not when you think you're good and ready.

This got me to thinking, why do we need to be focused outward? If I said at a table and feed the person next to me, and they feed the person next to them, and so on, we will certainly all eat a meal. But why must it be done that way? Why can't we just feed ourselves and have the same result? In other words, why not take care of ourselves and make that our focus, so that nobody else needs to take care of us? We can even make allowance for the extreme circumstances when someone does need another to take care of them.

Another teaching of the sages of the Mishna evaluates the way people relate to wealth and property. "One who says ' What is yours is yours, and what his mind is mine,' is an average person. Some sages teach that this is the attribute of Sodom." That is quite an argument! We go from average to the extreme evil of Sodom! What does this mean?

I don't believe one need say there is an argument here. One sages simply stressing statistics, that most people take the approach of "what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours." The other sage counters that this is a very bad approach, it is the approach of Sodom. The focus on me, while in the short term it may not cause major problems, in the long term can devolve into fascism and unspeakable cruelty. The difference between the Hillel approach and the Sodom approach is the difference of connection versus division.

Modern Western countries are focused on the rights of their citizens. People speak up, demonstrate, become active politically and vote based on who is going to protect their rights better. I believe this is a very bad thing. President Kennedy decried this in his famous saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Nowadays this has been flipped on its head.

Judaism is not a religion of rights, it is a system of responsibilities. It teaches us not that the poor have a right to bread, but rather that the rich have a responsibility to give bread to the poor. It is a subtle difference, but it is a world of difference.

The origin of societies was based upon what is called the "Social contract." The idea was that we band together for the common good, and to prevent any individuals from exploiting others. We agreed to behave nicely to others so that they do not kill us. There is no underlying concept of unity here, only a practical arrangement to prevent anarchy. The obvious flaw of the social contract is in the situation when one group becomes stronger than another, and no longer needs the social contract.

A poignant historical example of this is the Islamic treatment of treaties. Mohamed made a treaty for 10 years of peace with the tribe of Qureish in Mecca. As soon as he was strong enough, only two years into that treaty, he returned and massacred them all. So much for the lasting value of the social contract. This is exactly what we see happening in the Middle East today.

In America today, we are seeing worrying signs of societal disintegration. At the same time, there is a very troubling political hostility in the air. I believe this is a direct result of the emphasis of rights over responsibilities. That emphasis, although more refined, is still part of the social contract approach. Everybody is shouting "give me my right to do whatever the heck I want and the rest of you can do whatever the heck you want." The emphasis on me contains within it the seeds of division, and we see this happening before our very eyes.

God wants man to be focused outward. God wants man to understand that his purpose in life is to fulfill his responsibility towards humanity. God wants man to be dedicated to the fixing of the world. Certainly people deserve rights, but the way they must get those rights is through others fulfilling their responsibility to protect them. I am afraid that in the Western world, the nations have no goal other than to keep things quiet. There is no unifying vision that casts responsibility on every member of society. If there would be, things would be quite different.

I believe that the Western world needs to find a new mission, and that mission is an urgent one. It is to save the innocent victims of the barbarism rocking the Middle East. It is to teach the world the meaning of "love thy neighbor," and to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the "other."

This is the message of Aaron's staff. The essence of life is to use all of the wonderful gifts that God gave each of us to reach out and improve the world. The world needs constant improvement, and cannot wait. Someone who is truly dedicated to this task cannot sit idly by, even if they think they are not ready.

Korach's unusual demise

Indeed, Korach's unusual demise demands an explanation. In most instances, the Israelites who sinned were struck down in a plague. And even in this story, there is an alternative punishment used for other rebels. Moses tells all those who would presume to the priesthood to bring incense to the tabernacle. They do, and at the critical moment, they are consumed in fire. That, at least, is a punishment we have encountered elsewhere. Aaron's own sons, Nadav and Avihu, died in a Divine fire after having brought a sacrifice "that they were not commanded to bring."

Our sages in the Mishna tell us of 10 things that were created in the last hour before that first Sabbath in Genesis. One of them was the "mouth of the earth" which swallowed Korach and his fellow rebels. So we know it was unique, but why was it deserved? Let's take a closer look at his sin.

The rabbis trace the genesis of Korach's rebellion to his being passed over for the presidency of the tribe of Levi. Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, was the oldest of the four sons of Kehat, one of the three main branches of the Levites. Korach was the son of Yizhar, the second oldest. He, therefore, felt he should have had the next position of authority, and be the Prince of the tribe of Levi. Instead, it went to a man named Elitzafan, who was the son of the youngest brother, Uziel.

In addition, Korach, as a Levi, had to shave off all of his bodily hair. When his wife saw him like that, she convinced him that Moses had made up this law in order to humiliate him. She fed his paranoia by reminding him of the slight of his non-choice as Prince of the Levites. In other words, he was fed a whole lot of jealousy which pushed him to rebellion.

Now, it's not politically wise to rebel on the basis of one's own personal ambitions. One needs a higher cause, and so Korach created a populist movement. "The entire congregation is holy! God is in their midst! Why should you (Moses and Aaron) raise yourselves above the congregation of God?"

In order to amplify his populist complaints, he created a visual stunt. He had 250 people dress up in garments that were entirely made of sky blue coloring. He marched them over to Moses, and asked Moses a question: "do these garments require fringes?" There is a commandment to put fringes on the corners of a four-cornered garment. One of those strings must be of the sky blue coloring. Moses responded that yes, indeed, even if the entire garment is made of sky-blue, it requires the fringes.

Korach mocked this response. "This is illogical," he said, "because if one thread of sky-blue is sufficient to render a garment permissible, then if the garment is entirely made of sky-blue it should certainly be permissible on its own, without additional fringes." In other words, if the people are all holy, there is no need for spiritual leadership. We are all sky-blue, we need no fringes.

All of that being said, I still don't see why a special death needed to be created for Korach and his people. Yes, he was jealous. Yes, he was rebelling. So were the spies, so were those who worshipped the Golden calf. They weren't swallowed up by the ground. Korach and his people were. Why?

There was one other instance when death by burial in the earth was presented. It is not written in the Torah. This story is found in rabbinical commentaries. Who was threatened by this death? The entire Jewish people. At what time? As they were about to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. The rabbis tell us that God held the mountain above their heads and said, "if you accept the Torah, all will be well. If not, there shall be your graves."

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, questions the need for such a threat. Didn't the Israelites famously respond to God's offer of the Torah with, "We shall do and we shall learn?" They were eager to receive the Torah! Why threaten them with burial?

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests a powerful resolution to this question. He explains how the people were glad to receive the Torah… for themselves. They, after all, had witnessed the miracles of the Exodus. For them, faith was easy, and so accepting the Torah was a natural response.

But that generation was reluctant to accept the Torah on behalf of its descendants. They feared that their great-grandchildren, not having seen God's power, might not be willing to observe the Torah properly. Thus, they would be liable to punishment. To protect them, by not obligating them in the first place, the people were not ready to accept the Torah on their behalf. Just for themselves, not for their children.

To this, God says that by not accepting the Torah for their descendants, they are giving away immortality. Their generation will be the only one to keep the Torah, and when they are gone, so shall the Torah in this world be gone. They will figuratively be buried under the Mount Sinai that could've been the beginning of an unbroken chain.

Perhaps this is the danger in Korach's rebellion. By seeking to undermine the authority of Moses and Aaron, by seeking to deny the importance of spiritual leadership, Korach endangers the future of the Jewish people. The Judaism of Korach might last a generation, but no further. Why? Because Torah leadership requires the people to be in a process of constant growth. Leaders are the teachers, and learning is the key to Jewish survival. Education is central to our religion. Our most central prayer is the Shema, which enjoins us to "make (the words of Torah) them sharp in the mouths of your children and children's children."

Korach claimed that a person can achieve sufficient Jewish knowledge and spirituality. Once he reaches that level, further growth, and hence, leadership, become unnecessary. The symbolism of the garment made of sky-blue is a perfect metaphor. Moses's replies to Korach that there is no such thing as a garment that does not require the fringes, the strings that go out of the corners. Those strings symbolize the need for constant growth, for constant perfection. They teach us that a garment, no matter how beautiful, is not complete without something coming out of it.

Interestingly, the sequel to the story of Korach is the story of how the princes of the tribes were instructed to bring their staffs to the tabernacle. They would leave them there overnight, and the staff that would blossom and bloom would be that of God's chosen high priest. Sure enough, it was Aaron's staff that grew almonds and flowers. The Hebrew phrase for this is "Vayatzetz tzitz." The Hebrew word for fringes is "Tzitzit." In other words, Aaron's job is to be the fringes, the leader who helps the people to constantly grow. The commandment of Tzitzit, fringes, is given "to all their (Israel's) generations." In other words, there is something about this mitzvah that relates to the future of the Jewish people through their children.

And, interestingly, the rabbis have a sequel to this entire story about what happened underground. The sons of Korach, who were also swallowed up, did not die. They remained on a ledge beneath the Earth's surface, where, according to Talmudic legend, they can still be heard saying, "Moses is true, his Torah is true, and we are the falsifiers."

Korach's sin was to undermine our spiritual leaders, and remove the need for spiritual growth. Such a Judaism could never last, and thus his punishment of burial was a fulfillment of what God had threatened at Mount Sinai. He refused to accept the Torah for his future generations, and thus he was indeed buried. Our emphasis must always be on education, on transmitting the traditions to the next generation. We are part of the chain, and our Torah leaders are the ones who bring that tradition to us from our ancestors. Without them, if Korach had succeeded, we would've had no one to give us those traditions.