Parashat Korach 5781

9 June 2021 – 29 Sivan 5781

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

When the story of Korach came to be written down, a word went missing from the first sentence. Vayikach Korach – ‘Now Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth – descendants of Reuben…’ (Numbers 16.1). Somewhere in this list of names, the object of the opening verb, ‘vayikach’ – ‘and he took’ has disappeared.

What was it that Korach took? Rashi says that he ‘took himself to one side, splitting off from the community in order to protest against Aaron being given the priesthood.’ Ibn Ezra and Rashbam (Sh’muel ben Meir) say that he ‘took men’ to help him in his attempt to overthrow Moses and Aaron.

Nachmanides reads ‘Korach’ as the object, not the subject, of the verb: something ‘took Korach’ – his heart, which moved him to split himself off from the community, as in the verse, ‘How your heart has carried you away’ (Job 15:12). He took counsel with his heart to decide what he would say.

The midrash interprets the verb ‘to take’ as ‘drawing along with persuasive words.’ He drew after him all the chiefs of Israel and the Sanhedrin who were drawn to him, they took him to their hearts.

When the Hebrew Bible employs the verb lakach (to take), what is it that is so often its object? In Genesis 27, Esau cries that Jacob has taken away his birthright and blessing; could it be that Korach, by challenging Moses’ and Aaron’s authority and leadership, takes away Aaron’s right to the priesthood and the appointment of Moses as leader?

Did Korach perhaps steal something from the camp or from Moses and Aaron? Certainly, he and Dathan and Abiram, co-mutineers, steal men; two hundred and fifty representatives of the Israelites. Nor are they simply the riffraff who have mutinied before. These men, who ally themselves with Korach and his mates, are chieftains of the community, ‘chosen in the assembly with fine reputations’ (Numbers 16.2). Their lives will be taken as God annihilates them in the earthquake that swallows them up with their households.

He steals the language of holiness, the very words of the Torah, when he announces that ‘All the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst’ (Numbers 16.3). But he has misunderstood the statement God makes to Moses in Exodus, instructing him to tell the Israelites, ‘You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ Korach actualises a statement of potential. He removes the necessity to strive for priestliness and holiness; the struggle has become empty of meaning, because it no longer exists. He believes he is already there with his hollow declaration – ‘all the community are holy, all of them, and God is [already] in their midst.’

Korach endangers life and takes life away, from his followers and their households. The men, the women and their children, disappear with their possessions, going down live into Sheol, the earth closing over them until they vanish from the midst of the congregation.

But when the word ‘lakach’ is used most often in Tanakh, its object is a wife, a woman. In every generation in Torah, men take women as wives, as they acquire their animals and other possessions.

What if the missing word is ‘ishah’ – a woman? Korach took a woman hostage, or he used his wife to rise up against Moses, against her will.

The rabbis hint at something like this in their comment on ‘Vayikach Korah.’ ‘Now Korach…took:’ this implies that he took his tallit and he went to take advice from his wife. What did she say to him? The midrash does not tell us explicitly; but what if she tried to persuade him not to rebel against Moses and Aaron? Perhaps she said to her husband, ‘You are going too far… why do you raise yourself up above God’s congregation?’ The same words that Korach uses against Moses and Aaron.

If he creates strife in the camp, who is to say that Korach does not created strife within the domestic sphere? What if Korach’s profile is that of a coercive, aggressive and violent husband? If he is abusive towards Moses and Aaron, perhaps it follows that he is an abusive husband, a man whose narcissism will not prevent him from sacrificing his wife and children and his neighbours’ wives and children for his own vainglorious self-aggrandisement.

The image is terrifying: the families of the rebels stand at the entrance of their tents. This time, there is no weeping or wailing, only silence as they wait for God’s judgement. Korach’s innocent victims are the women and children whom he takes hostage for his own tyrannical and selfish ends.

Korach embodies argument that is not for the sake of heaven. But he is also the figure in Torah who destroys Jewish values: shalom bayit (peace in the home), pikkuach nefesh (the saving of human life) and l’shon ha-ra (defamatory speech). His victims, silenced and abused, could not be saved. Today they remind us to speak out, raise awareness and support organisations that provide refuge and support for all those who suffer from domestic abuse.

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