This week’s portion is often understood in black and white: A lone Israelite, Korach, cries out against what he believes is a power-hungry hierarchy, with Moses at the top. Korach is rebuked by Moses, who then tells God not to accept Korach’s offering [Numbers 16:15], even though a few verses later [Num. 16:28] Moses tells Korach that the punishment is not from him. For daring to challenge the hierarchy, Korach is punished immediately: the ground swallows Korach and his followers alive.

The story is meant as a moral model for squeaky clean control of Israelites who do not yet appreciate their Divinely ordained leadership model. Thus, Korach is a rational problem (citizens unhappy with the ruling elite) that gets a Divine solution.

What if we read the biblical story of Korach’s rebellion against Moses as an attempt to introduce democracy into a theocracy? Korach as a vanguard, as a voice of the people, the barometer of a democracy in a tightly woven socio-religious system? Korach became the voice of those displeased with what they saw as an impenetrable hierarchy, with room only for those born with the Levite silver spoon in their mouth.

In the Bible, the representative of the Divine comes in all sorts of forms: quasi-angels, prophets, chosen men or chosen women, but do the Israelites get to choose someone to represent THEIR concerns? Can there be transparency in a theocracy? Can theocracy and democracy coexist?

In trying to understand the Korach narrative, one must ask, in order for the Bible to offer monotheism to the ancient world, did monotheism require a controlled and uniform Israelite people? Did the Bible ask of the Israelites blind faith in their human leadership, an extension of Divine power? If the Bible is a Jewish book for all times, then what precedent does the Korach story set about who gets to have power when there is no Divine declaration?

Lastly, what are we to make of Korach’s punishment? It is impossible to read of the earth opening its jaws to gobble down Korach, his followers, their wives and children, and not think about the corresponding punishment the Israelites are warned of in Deuteronomy before they enter Canaan: If they disobey God, the land will spit them out.

The first experiment of democracy in the Bible takes place after they have conquered Canaan. God intervenes less and less in human affairs. During this period, called “Judges,” there is no Divine representative, such as a prophet. “Judges” is an opportunity for the Israelites to demonstrate the best of monotheism, set in a rational, social order. Instead, this period turns from one of potential social success to a morally depraved society. A heinous example that comes to mind is Pilegesh B’givah [Judges 19], where an Israelite woman is gang-raped all night in an Israelite town. The classic interpretation of the Judge’s story is that the Israelites failed miserably at human rule and needed a Divinely ordained monarchy. 

Yet, if the land is an agent of God’s power, why are the rapists not spit out, but Korach and his followers are swallowed up? Is it because the Israelites are still in a nascent stage at the time of Korach, not having cut the cord with paganism, and so Divine intervention is necessary? 

After the Israelites settled Canaan, there is a movement away from God’s intervention and there is a change in the degree of power that the Divinely ordained leader has, becoming a paragon of morality, empathy and justice. Perhaps, the origin of this kind of leadership is in Korach’s story. Soon after Korach and his followers have died, Moses is instructed to speak to the rock in order to provide water for the Israelites [Num. 20:7]. Instead, Moses hits the rock. This seemingly minor infraction costs Moses the opportunity to enter the land of Canaan, the piece de la resistance of the Torah.

Scholars attempt to explain this excessive punishment that does not seem to match the crime. But if listening is the cornerstone of a good leader, then perhaps Moses had not yet fully modeled a fundamental leadership quality: empathy. Listening allows one to cultivate one’s empathy. Only after failing to listen to God can Moses be that empathic leader who can be with his people when they, too, have failed. The punishment allows Moses to finally be the wounded healer, the Jungian leader who can be in pain with his people. This can explain how he was so intolerant of Korach.

In contrast, when the Israelites sin with the Golden Calf, Moses is the portrait of the wounded healer, praying on their behalf, the empathic impulse set in. Certainly, the sinning Israelites could have been swallowed up by the land.

Perhaps Korach is about leadership, both the human and Divinely ordained, gone wrong. Only after the leader fail, is the Bible able to serve as a model of empathic and transparent leadership. 

Temima Goldberg Shulman is founder and leader of the Midrasha in Manhattan, an open and safe space for Israelis to study text and build a Jewish identity.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 8:10 p.m.

Torah: Numbers 16:1-18:32

Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22

Havdalah: 9:11 p.m.