Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)

What happens when winning is the goal, and truth doesn’t matter?

Demagogue: NOUN (Lexico.com)
1 A political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.

‘a gifted demagogue with particular skill in manipulating the press’

The Israelites have been condemned to spend a total of 40 years wandering in the wilderness. They have about 38 ½ to go. Stunned, they question the leadership of Moses and Aaron.  But who could replace them?

Some candidates quickly come forward, taking advantage of the incipient power vacuum, and hoping to deal with their own grievances. The leader is Korach, a Levite who is jealous of his cousins Moses and Aaron.  A couple of Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, are aggrieved at their tribe’s, thus their own, loss of status; Reuben was after all Jacob’s first-born. [A third Reubenite, On ben Pelet, is mentioned but then disappears. A midrash has it that his sensible wife prevented his joining the rebellion.] Joining them are 250 Israelites, respected leaders among the tribes. They accuse Moses and Aaron of having gone too far in setting themselves above the people, since the entire community is holy. This is a deliberate distortion of reality. They aren’t yet holy and only will become so by keeping the covenant (Exodus 19:5-6).

Speaking specifically to Korach and the Levites, Moses retorts that the Levites have gone too far, and that they should recognize how special their own assigned service is. He tells them to offer incense in their firepans the next day, and so the Lord will show them who is holy. Why the next day? Perhaps Moses wants to give them a chance to repent and back off. (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 5).

Dathan and Abiram won’t even deign to come talk to Moses’s summons. In fact, they accuse Moses of taking them from a land flowing with milk and honey to die in the wilderness.

Again, the Lord is set to destroy the whole people and Moses and Aaron talk the Lord out of it. 

At the test the following day, Moses tells the people, “if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the Lord who sent me.  But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord” (16:29-30).  The earth immediately opens up, swallowing Korach and his people, except for the 250 offering incense, who are consumed by divine fire.

But this miracle does not end the argument. The people blame Moses and Aaron for the deaths.  

The Lord sends a plague to destroy the people.  14,700 die until Aaron stops the plague by taking an incense-containing firepan and standing between the living and the dead (reminds me of our health care providers and epidemiologists versus COVID-19). Aaron’s authority is settled when his staff sprouts, blossoms, and produces almonds.  The rest of the portion concerns tithes and perks for the Kohanim and Levites, and the Israelites settle down.

What makes these latest rebellions different?  Previous arguments concerned immediate, concrete needs, like escaping Pharaoh’s army, food, and water.  This is about power and authority.  The rebels’ behavior is basic demagoguery; see, e.g., Michael Signer,  Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (Macmillan. 2009. ISBN 0230606245. pp. 35–6).  Korach presents himself as just one of the people and relates to them on a simplistic, visceral level. He and his fellow travelers rail against the authority of Moses and Aaron in order to subvert the system and put themselves in charge. But, since the authority of Moses and Aaron comes directly from the Lord, rejecting their authority is tantamount to rejecting the Lord’s authority.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote last year that the Sages distinguished between argument for the sake of truth and argument for the sake of victory.  The rebels implied, “there should be no distinction of rank, no hierarchy of holiness, within Israel.” But that wasn’t true. They wanted to be the leaders.  Winning was the goal, not truth.  Had Korach and company won, the people would have been doomed, because that authority would have been illegitimate.

However, there are real issues to address. In this year’s d’var on Korach, Rabbi Sacks wrote, “if you want to understand resentments, listen to what people accuse others of, and you will then know what they themselves want. … What the rebels wanted was what they attributed to Moses and Aaron… They wanted to “set themselves above” the Lord’s assembly and “lord it over” the people. They wanted power.  What then do you do when you seek not truth but power? You attack not the message but the messenger. You attempt to destroy the standing and credibility of those you oppose…

“There was not the slightest attempt to set out the real issues: a leadership structure that left simmering discontent among the Levites, Reubenites and other tribal chiefs; a generation that had lost all hope of reaching the promised land; and whatever else was troubling the people. There were real problems, but the rebels were not interested in truth. They wanted power…When you are arguing for the sake of power, truth doesn’t come into it at all.”

But, in the end, the rebels lose and legitimate authority is re-established. Aaron’s sprouting staff “was a multifaceted symbol of life, light, holiness, and the watchful presence of God.  One could almost say that the almond branch symbolised the priestly will to life as against the rebels’ will to power.”

Shabbat shalom and zei gezunt (be well),



Quotes about Demagoguery

Where you don’t have people who have strong intellectual capacity, you get demagoguery. Hamza Yusuf

There is a line in which populism can cross over into demagoguery. Demagoguery is the crossover where populism becomes a bad thing, and people make things up, and they assign responsibilities that aren’t fair and justified, and scapegoat communities. And then it becomes a very bad thing. Lloyd Blankfein

We have demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s not helpful. It’s destructive. It’s harmful. So, I don’t like demagoguery whether it comes from the left, it comes from the right. Ron Johnson

If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump – a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses, she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility. Michiko Kakutani


Rebel Jokes

·        What do you call it when someone rebels against their diabetes treatment?

·        What do you call your kid who doesn’t believe in Santa?
A rebel without a Claus.

·        What did Julius Caesar say when the French tribesmen rebelled against him?
I can’t believe you had the Gaul to do this. You’re driving me in-Seine. I can’t handle this Rhine now.

·        What’s a rebel’s favorite key on a keyboard?
An R key.

·        Did you hear what happened to the ship that transported live goats?
The goats rebelled and had a muttony.



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Yeah, it was a “coo” d’état.



Earthquake myths were cultural standards – a way for ancient people to understand the powerful natural events, according to the Center for Earthquake Research and Information in Memphis. Here are stories that various societies used to explain the shifting earth, as reported on the CERI Web site at www.ceri.memphis.edu/public/myths.shtml

(Selected) Ancient Myths

Greece Thales of Miletos (6th century BC) believed an agitation of the great sea, on which the earth floats, produced earthquakes.

Mexican Vaqueros, California El Diablo, an Indian god, made a giant rip in the ground so that he and his cohorts did not have to take the long way around when they wanted to stir up mischief on Earth.

Gabrielino Indians, Southern California  Long ago, Great Spirit made a beautiful land that turtles carried on their backs in lakes and rivers. One day the turtles began to argue. Three swam east; the other three swam west. The earth shook and cracked. The turtles could not swim far, because their load was heavy. So they made up. But once in a while, the turtles argue again. Each time, the earth shakes.

Hindus of India They believed that eight mighty elephants held up the land. When one of them grew weary, it lowered and shook its head, causing an earthquake.

Mongolia, China A gigantic frog which carried the world on its back twitched periodically, producing slight quakes.

Peru Whenever a god visited the earth to count how many people were there, his footsteps caused earthquakes. To shorten his task, the people ran out of their houses to shout ‘I’m here, I’m here!’ (incorporating in their myth, the wisdom of leaving flimsy houses during an earthquake).

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