Bamidbar 16:2-3 (Robert Alter, trans.)
they rose before Moses, and two hundred fifty men of the Israelites, community chieftains, persons called up to meeting, men of renown. And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “Rav lachem: You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the LORD, and why should you raise yourselves up over the LORD’s assembly?”
they are all holy: Korach and his followers throw back in Moses’s face the idea he ” (Exodus 19:6).
raise yourselves up: The verb could mean “play the chieftain.”
Rav lachem: you have gone too far! you overreach yourselves!
Implicit in this language is the issue of desire and greed, of legitimate and illegitimate ambition.
Why is Korach’s ambition illegitimate and Moses’ legitimate? How do you choose?
Bamidbar 16:8-11 (Avivah Zornberg, trans.)
“Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of God’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all of your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against God that you and all your company have banded together.”
[what is] the relation between two attitudes … two uses of the mouth, as embodied in the relation between two men, Moses and Korach, who are first cousins and whose differences arise out of a shared history. Beyond the power struggle between them, the narrative raises profound questions about the nature of language itself. … At issue between them, in the end, is the world-creating, fictive character of language.
Korach … sounds a strangely mixed note of resentment and envy, on the one hand, and, on the other a certain idealized beauty … Moses’ response echoes their rhetoric but to different effect: he speaks of God’s will as the source of power hierarchies … By placing their worldly relation to God at the center of the discussion, Moses attempts to move the discourse from the rhetorical to the pragmatic/theological plane.
Moses points to the personal nature of Korach’s ambition that is clothed in Korach’s combination of resentment and idealization.
[In the confrontation with Dathan and Aviram:] Moses exposes the nub of the argument: did God send him, or is the whole story a fabrication, in conscious or unconscious pursuit of power?
Using a recent phrase, who is presenting “the fake news.” Moses is saying that God will enact an event so extraordinary and extreme that it will leave no doubt as to its source.
Note that the Spies spoke of the Promised Land devouring the people. Here, in the Wilderness, the land does devour the people.
The terrible alternative to spoken words is the cataclysm of final and irrefutable revelations. Moses had, as it were, exhausted (k’chaloto … et kol ha-devarim) all the resources of language, so that nothing remained but the brute apocalypse. The limitation of human language, indeed, is that words can never achieve the finality, the last word, of the consuming earth.
The destruction of language leads to destruction.
Korach’s rhetoric is a rhetoric of totality. It allows no debate or nuance. All of the people are holy, Korach says. What right does Moses and Aaron have to set themselves apart?
Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 18:8, Avivah Zornberg trans.
These wicked men were tripped up by their own mouth; there is a covenant made with the lips … Why? Because when a man argues with his companion and the other answers him in argument, he has satisfaction, but if he does not answer he feels grieved.
Dathan and Aviram are the “unmaskers.” They will not be fooled by Moses’ language. Of course, they themselves use language in order to unmask Moses, but their language, they would claim, hews to the “plain meaning” of words. [The land of Egypt is a fertile land, why isn’t it as good as the Promised Land, which cannot be reached by this generation?] This literal understanding of language, however, is a travesty of the meaning of the iconic phrase, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This is always used to refer to the Land of Israel; when the rebels use it to refer to Egypt, it is they who are dislocating meaning.
Korach’s discourse is one of total rightness, of uncompromising and transparent righteousness. Such people bring ruin upon the world: inflexible, unyielding … unequivocal, all of a piece, and inevitably he brings destruction on himself and others.
What is striking about this … is the implication that the “master of dissension” is precisely not one who cultivates argument: he is one who is so “right” that there is no possibility of discussion.
One might say that such a person refuses to mourn: to acknowledge the gaps, the differences that beset human experience. … he is aware neither of his own edges nor of his desire to transcend them. … “his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.” (Chesterton).
[Korach] lacks all awareness of his own lack, of the void within him. Most pitiable of all human beings, he cannot access his own void. Engulfed in an illusion of self-possession, he is entirely “lost.” (The word oved [lost] is the one used to describe the disappearance of the rebels into the earth … Korach emerges as a nonperson even in his own life: the apparently successful man with an internal void that is unrecognized by himself. This hollowness is a constitutive aspect of being human; ignorant of this, Korach has no access to his life’s spiritual project, which relates precisely to that potential space.
The following psalm is described in the midrash as being sung by the followers of Korach in Gehinnom.
Psalm 88 (Avivah Zornberg, trans.)
A Song, a Psalm of the sons of Korach …
O Lord, God of my salvation,
By day I cried, in the night before You.
Let my prayer come before You.
Incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is sated with troubles,
And my life comes close to the grave.
I am counted with those that go down into the pit;
I have become as a human that has no help;
Set apart among the dead,
Like the slain that lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more;
And they are cut off from Your hand,
You have laid me in the nethermost pit,
In dark places, in the deeps …
Shall Your mercy be declared in the grave?
Or Your faithfulness in destruction?
Korach and his followers ultimately find redemption and teshuvah. The earth cannot contain their spirit.