We're in the camp, now, right in the middle of it. The Tabernacle is in the middle of the camp, the camp is in the middle of the wilderness, and we're in the middle of Bamidbar , the middle book of Torah. We're right in the thick of it, with Korach and his followers… and things are about to get messy.
There are only five parashiot in the Torah that are named for individual people: Noah, Yitro, Pinchas, Balaak, and Korach. In each, something cataclysmic happens; Noah (destruction of the world), Yitro (giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai) and Balaak (the entire Israelite nation was cursed). In the parashiot named for Israelites, Pinchas murders a member of the community in a public, grisly way, acting as a "zealot for God," and here in Korach, we witness a revolution with astounding and violent repercussions.
By the way, three of these parashiot happen in Bamidbar ; the wilderness is a dangerous place to be.
The basic story line of Korach is that he challenged Moses' authority, and gathered 250 men together for the stand-off. Korach said to Moses and Aaron that they had "gone too far…for all the community is holy, all of them and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai's congregation?" (Bam 16:3) Moses postpones a confrontation until morning, saying that God will resolve the challenge the next day, saying, "[No,] You have gone too far, sons of Levi!" (Bam 16:7)
God wants to wipe out the people (again), but Moses and Aaron talk God down. Instead, a big hole in the ground opens up, swallows up all but just the rebels, and then a holy fire swept through the camp. Witnessing this, the people that were left took up the challenge, too, and confronted Moses and Aaron. Once again, God threatens to annihilate the entire people, and once again, Moses and Aaron stood their ground, and "only" a plague came through the community, wiping out thousands.
Just as there are five parashiot that are named after individuals, there are five instances in Torah when God threatened to annihilate the people: the Korach revolt, the Golden Calf incident, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, and the incessant complaining by the people in the wilderness. There are common themes among them.
Each one of them represents a threat to the community, to society in general. The Flood and Sodom and Gemorrah were responses to rampant immorality. The Golden Calf was about adopting idolatry, which was basically cheating on God. With the ongoing complaining and Korach, the issue was how insidious and destructive these behaviors could be for a society. The complaining was infectious, a rebuke not only to Moses who had brought them out into the wilderness to die (they thought), but to God, who had really brought them out to the wilderness to live, as a new society. Korach represented the destructive impact of one man thinking he was better than another.
Korach's actions weren't wrong just because he presented a challenge to authority. This can be a good thing. Every positive social change came from someone standing up and saying, "This isn't right." But there is a difference between saying something isn't right and the system needs to change, and gathering a mob to oust the guy in charge. The Israelites' time in the wilderness was about learning how to set up a new society, one that moved the people from slavery to responsible citizenship in an evolving social construct.
Yes, Korach raised an important point-what was the plan for succession, who was leading next? That's what setting up a system is all about. Calling for social change is vital. A society can survive bad leadership, but leadership is about more than an individual. It's about a system, a vision, and a way to see it through, and how to handle dissent. Even now, when we don't like one of our leaders, the better part of us respects the office, if not the office-holder. We get into trouble when we don't. Korach certainly did, because he didn't see the difference.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .