Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)

I have just returned from vacation.  Virginia Beach.  Just a few days, but enough for my brain to switch to low power, so I decided to repeat a TPH on demagoguery for Korach, which I thought I’d written last year, it being ever-so-appropriate in 2017.  To my surprise, I wrote it in July 2016, months before its relevancy shot up exponentially.  It is even more relevant today.  Democracy is a fragile form of government. It requires that everyone participate, knowledgeably and thoughtfully.  Abdicating that responsibility is an invitation to disaster. When you feel hopeless and betrayed by a world in which the rules have changed, along with your place in it, the idea of a strong man (yes, man, historically) simply taking over and making everything all right again (for you) is very tempting.  Keep that in mind as we examine the story of Korach.

From 2016. When we last left the Israelites, they were still coming to grips with the prospect of spending the next 38+ years in the wilderness instead of the Promised Land.  Their response is not the usual whining but a series of out-and-out rebellion.  In one, Dathan and Abiram (and briefly On ben Pelet, whose wife – according to Midrash – told him not to be an idiot and kept him away) feel they deserve higher status as descendants of Jacob’s firstborn Reuben.  Their insolence toward Moses is breathtaking (calling Egypt a land of milk and honey?!).  They join with Korach, an ambitious Levite, and 250 other chieftains in questioning the authority of Moses and Aaron:  “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”(16:3) 

Moses responds that they question not his authority, but the Lord’s. Further, for Korach et al., isn’t being a Levite special enough?  And he protests to the Lord that he has never personally profited from his position.  [That’s also how Samuel acts in the haftarah, I Samuel 11:14 – 12:22, telling the people what a fair judge he’s been and what ungrateful wretches they are to ask for a king.  This is as Saul is about to be crowned.] The next morning, he declares, the rebels are to bring their firepans for offering incense, which will show if they have the Lord’s favor.  Having apparently forgotten what happened to Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10: 1-3), the 250 chieftains try to offer incense and are consumed by fire.  The earth splits open and swallows up Korach, Dathan, Abiram and their households, to the horror of the community.

Do the people settle down now?  Nope, they blame Moses and Aaron for what happened to the rebels.  A plague strikes (surprise).  Moses convinces the Lord not to destroy the people (again) and Aaron stops the plague by offering incense, so that “only” 14,700 die.  Aaron’s legitimacy is re-established when his staff, and only his, buds, blooms, and bears almonds.  The portion ends with a description of what the priests and Levites get from the Israelites’ offerings.

Korach can be difficult for us to get a fix on.  It seems reasonable for him to question the leadership of Moses and Aaron when faced with a total of 40 years in the wilderness.  However, it was the Israelites’ own behavior that doomed them.  Korach also seems to be promoting democracy, but, while apparently dictatorial, Moses and Aaron were given their authority by the Lord.  Korach is clearly an opportunist, but is he actually a demagogue?  In Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (Macmillan. 2009. pp. 32–41.ISBN 0230606245), Michael Signer cites James Fenimore Cooper’s (yes, that James) four rules followed by true demagogues (pp. 35-6): 

  1. They present themselves as being of the common people, not the elites.
  2. They depend on a powerful, visceral connection with the people, far beyond ordinary political popularity,
  3. They manipulate this connection for their own benefit and ambition.
  4. They threaten or even break established rules of conduct, institutions, even law. They do that either internally (threatening tyranny, subverting an inherently corrupt system of law) or externally by attacking other nations or groups.  In either case, they are intrinsically violent.

Signer describes the process.  “The cycle begins with a demagogue, ambition, and charisma.  …Soon enough, the people give him the government itself.  The democracy rapidly becomes a tyranny.”  In time, the tyrant is overthrown, eventually leading to a re-establishment of democracy, which lasts until the next demagogue emerges.  The Greek historian Polybius (2nd century BCE) described this as “a cycle of constitutional revolutions” in which the ashes of a destroyed democracy give rise to a despot because the people sacrifice freedom for order.

Back to Korach.  Korach exhibits the 4 demagogic behaviors listed to varying extents, but he doesn’t have enough time to develop into a full-blown demagogue capable of overthrowing the current system.  Of course, that would require besting the Lord, so Korach was doomed from the start.  Thank goodness.

Shabbat shalom, 



tph a-demagogue-with-delusions-of-grandeur-a-maniac-with-nuclear-weapons-an-evil-spymaster-as-a-countrys-president-when-did-i-start-living-in-a-marvel-comic




The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose.  BARACK OBAMA, Feb. 9, 2009

Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right. H.L. MENCKEN

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.  WINSTON CHURCHILL

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. ROBERT HUTCHINS

Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.  H.L. MENCKEN



Oh no you didn’t! 30 acts of rebellion that will make your day (selections)

THEY’RE life’s little rebellions – like jaywalking or taking the lift during a fire drill. Here are 30 small acts of defiance that will make your day. Kate Midena   [I am not necessarily endorsing any of these, except #7, once in a while, and that depends on the dessert. IGP]

1 Catching the lift in a fire drill instead of taking 25 flights of stairs

5 Swallowing your chewing gum

7 Not just eating dessert before dinner, but eating dessert INSTEAD OF dinner

12 Sneaking a few extra items through the ten items or less line at the supermarket

15 Tearing recipes and pretty pictures out of magazines in waiting rooms

18 Jumping the queue and pretending you didn’t realise there were ten people in front of you

23 Eating potato chips for breakfast… potato is a vegetable so it’s good for you, right?

24 Switching your phone back on before you’ve been told you can on the plane

25 Quickly closing the lift doors when you see people coming

28 Being given extra change accidentally and keeping it



tph tectonic relationships


While looking for jokes about incense, I often see this definition:

INCENSE: Holy smoke!

I was at a study session a few weeks ago where someone asked what the origin of the phrase “holy smoke” was and I have now finally looked it up.

It does not refer to the smoke arising when a new pope is being elected.  It does refer to burning incense, but only in part.  IGP.

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/holy-smoke/  The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest print sighting of ‘holy smoke’ as found in “The Epiphany,” a 1627 poem by Sir J. Beaumont: ‘Who lift to God for vs the holy smoke Of feruent pray’rs.’ (‘Who lift to God for us the holy smoke Of fervent prayers,’ for those better accustomed to more modern spelling.)

In that 1627 work, the phrase is used as a picturesque way of describing the burning of incense. It is not until 1892, however, that it is recorded as finding employment as an exclamation or mild expletive; that is, as a saying wholly divorced of anything literally to do with something being burned or the smoke it would give off. In that year, Rudyard Kipling and his American agent Charles Balestier used it as an independent vehemence in “The Naulahka:” ‘By the holy smoke, some one has got to urge girls to stand by the old machine.’ From that point forward, ‘holy smoke’ began appearing in the literature of the day as a generic exclamation.

The two uses may have arisen independently and so be unrelated. … The divergence theory is supported by the number of other ‘holy’ exclamations in existence, such as holy Moses and holy cow. … (E)xamining the broader scope of two-part ‘holy’ terms, one quickly sees that a great many use as their completers words that have a strong ‘O’ presence: holy joe, holy moley, holy toledo, holy horror, and holy roller, as well as the previously-mentioned holy Moses and holy cow. ‘Holy smoke’ fits this alliterativeness, this joy-filled pursuit of the rolling ‘O.’

Barbara “in the O zone” Mikkelson

So now you know.  IGP


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