Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg
Perhaps the most dramatic political crisis recounted in the Torah has something important to teach us about our own contentious time. In Parshat Korach, we learn about an attempted coup against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. It is led by one of their own kinsmen, a fellow Levite, Korach, for whom this Torah portion is named. It might seem ironic that a section of Torah is named for one who rebelled against the authority of Moses and, by extension, God. In many instances, the name of such a rebel might be erased from historical memory. But our sacred text preserves the episode and the names of all the key players. This shows how important this incident is precisely because it is notorious. It illustrates both the virtues and vices that are present … at least in potential … in every community no matter how great or small where there is a contest over leadership and privilege.
There are many points of interest and insight to be considered in this portion. One that draws the attention of our sages is contained in the very first words of the portion, “Va’yikach Korach”, meaning “and Korach took…” The question is posed, what did Korach take? As leader of a rebellion, did he take up arms? Did he seize symbols of leadership? No, say the sages. The opening words of the portion reveal that Korach’s first step in trying to subvert the authority and leadership of Moses was “to take” the ability of our ancestors to distinguish between fact and inuendo.
This is related to the rabbinic term “g’naivat da’at”. “G’naiva” means theft. “Da’at” means knowledge or discernment. Together they make up the term which the rabbis use to describe deception or misdirection. Literally, stealing from another person their ability to decern fact from fiction; to differentiate between falsehood and truth, or detect deception. It is a significant insight on the part of our sages to recognize that the type of deception which Korach employs is, in effect, a theft – a malicious act that deprives others of what is naturally theirs.
To read further into this portion is to recognize how insidious Korach’s efforts were, how deceptive was his rhetoric and how self-centered was his intent. The preservation of this episode in the Torah shows an understanding that legitimate authority is always vulnerable to assault by those who are willing to use unscrupulous means to place themselves in positions of power for personal gain or aggrandizement. But that is not its only caution. This passage of Torah reminds us that each of us is, by nature, capable of discernment and warns us to protect ourselves and our communities from becoming victims of “g’naivat da’at”. How can we do this? By keeping in mind the teaching from Pirke Avot: “The world is sustained by three things – justice, truth and peace” (1:18). We are obligated to insist that our leaders … or those who would be our leaders … promote these three values in both word and deed, and to pay close attention without being distracted or allowing ourselves to be deceived. Some of our ancestors were “taken” by Korach and paid a heavy price. In our day, we must be more wise and more vigilant.