Korah's Declaration of Independence

Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l

Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l was a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies beginning in 2002.  After his ordination he returned to AJU to teach and mentor other young rabbis.  His commentaries were written during this time.

posted on June 3, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading
Maftir Reading

In this week's Torah Portion, we read of the Rebellion of Korah. An interesting word, "rebellion." I suspect that the difference between "rebellion" and "revolution" is neither the justice of the cause nor the support of the people; rather, it is the success or failure of the uprising. Had the insurrection been successful, had Korah and the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram succeeded in deposing Moses and setting themselves up as the leaders of Israel, we would be reading today about the "Revolution of Korah" instead of the "rebellion."

Being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I cannot say what would have been the future of Israel after Korah's "Revolution." But I am fairly confident that our midrashim, our Bible legends, would have had a different focus in discussing the episode. We would not have heard about Korah's tremendous wealth-that as Pharaoh's treasurer, he amassed such a fortune that it required 300 donkeys merely to carry the keys to his treasure houses. We would not have heard the about Korah's defiant questioning of Mosaic law: does a garment made entirely of the color T'cheilet (blue) still require a fringe of T'cheilet in order to be kosher? Does a house filled with sacred scrolls still require a mezuzah, since the passages in the mezuzah are already in the scrolls within? Rather, our midrashim-in support of the winning side (bearing in mind that history is always written by the victors)-would focus on Moses' shortcomings and errors.

What might such midrashim look like? Bearing in mind the summer time in which we read Korah, and with apologies to Thomas Jefferson, I present a modern (well, 18th century) Korahic midrash:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to overthrow the political and religious tyranny which has confined them, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to this action.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Israel are holy, that the Lord God took us out of Egypt to serve God, and not to replace one Pharaoh with another; that to afford us the opportunity to serve the Lord God, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from God, with the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety, Happiness and Divine Favor. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Tribes; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present leader is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these Tribes. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He, who was raised in the palaces of Pharaoh and spent his adult life as a fugitive from Egypt, who has never known the backbreaking labor of bricklaying or the taste of an Egyptian lash, who married the daughter of a foreign priest and has never lived one day among his people, has set himself up as Ruler over us, in direct violation of the Law: "Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people."

He has arrogated to himself, and to his Tribe of Levi, that station of leadership belonging naturally to the Tribe of Reuben, the Tribe of the Firstborn of Israel.

He has claimed a Special Holy Status for his Tribe of Levi, and for the family of his brother Aaron, when all know that the Lord God has proclaimed the entire People of Israel Holy.

From the Four Families in the Clan of Kohat, in the Tribe of Levi, He has not only given special status to the first-born Family of Amram over all the People Israel, by setting himself up as King and his brother Aaron as High Priest, but he has slighted Korah of the Family of Izhar, second-born of Kohat, by appointing Elizaphan ben Uzziel (from the last-born Family) as leader of the Kohatite Clan instead of Korah.

He has brought down the Wrath of Pharaoh upon us while we yet lived in Egypt, the Land of Milk and Honey, by polluting the Waters and destroying the Crops, bringing Disease and Disaster and finally by killing the innocent, Man and Beast alike.

He encouraged the looting of our panic-stricken Egyptian Neighbors as we left Egypt, assuring us of the enmity of the Egyptian people as well as that of the house of Pharaoh.

He caused Pharaoh to chase us out of Egypt, with no clear strategy for survival, purposely forcing us to rely on God's Grace for our Salvation and our Sustenance.

He has portrayed the Lord God, with whom he alone has communion, as Capricious and Vengeful, Who sends Plague and Pestilence among us every time the Faith of the People falters or wavers.

He absented himself for over one month while the People were still recovering from the awesome Revelation of the Law at Sinai, and when his own Brother, the High Priest Aaron, set about to mollify the People with the image of a Calf, he suddenly reappeared in a fit of rage and had his Tribe go marauding through the camp with swords drawn, killing three thousand people whose only crime was Abandonment by their Leader.

He sent a delegation of Tribal Leaders-one from each Tribe-to evaluate and gauge the prospects of a successful Invasion and Conquest of Canaan, and then refused to accept their honest assessment, sentencing them instead to death, and the People to forty years' wandering in the Wasteland.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury, by pestilence and by death. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Tribes, solemnly publish and declare, That these Tribes are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent Tribes; that they are Absolved from all Domination by the Tyrant Moses; and that as Free and Independent Tribes, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent Tribes may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Our sages tell us in Pirkei Avot that the while the disputes between Hillel and Shammai were for the sake of heaven, and therefore praiseworthy, those between Moses and Korah were not for the sake of heaven (Avot 5:17), but rather for Korah's own personal aggrandizement. And that is certainly our tradition.

And yet.... Was there no merit whatsoever in Korah's accusations? Didn't he have the right to question Moses? And don't we have the right to questions our leaders' actions? I believe that the purpose our tradition includes the story of Korah is to highlight this very point: that as a people, we do have the right to question our leaders' decisions and dealings. They owe us the duty of transparency. As it happens, Korah was wrong; but not every leader is a Moses. In the end, this is why we were given Torah-that there be some objective, explicit setting down of the Law, against which we may judge the actions of our leaders. If we don't jealously safeguard this right, if we don't vigorously exercise this freedom, we run the risk of ascribing to our leaders the characteristics of Moses, when they may in fact be those of Pharaoh-or Korah.

Shabbat Shalom.