“For the entire assembly, all of them, are holy and G-d is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3) Korach and his followers question the validity of Moshe’s leadership over the people of Israel with the argument that all of Israel are holy and equal in greatness, thus obviating the need for designated leaders and Sages. In response to this rebellion, G-d miraculously causes the earth to swallow the rebels alive.
Korach and his adherents had seen the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, and the wonders of Mount Sinai and, thus, did not rebel against or deny the authority of G-d. Why, then, were they punished so severely for rebelling against Moshe?
Rabbi Avigdor Miller (1) offers an answer by way of exposition on the two components of Torah, the written law and the oral explanation. The written law – the Five Books of Moses – is a testimony of our past, present, and future as a nation and it provides a brief outline of the laws. In contrast, the accompanying oral explanation – as subsequently recorded in the Mishna and Medrash – that has been handed down from teachers to disciples, beginning with Moshe, explains in detail how we practically fulfill the commandments and in many cases explains why we perform them. Without the oral explanation, the written law would not make sense and would be subject to arbitrary conjecture resulting in every person interpreting the Torah and morality according to their proclivities and subjective conceptions.
The Creator of the World gave the Torah to Moshe with all its explanations. He in turn was charged with passing on the tradition to the Sages and the nation as a whole, and this pattern has repeated itself until to today. Korach’s challenge to Moshe was a great peril to the nation of Israel. The nation could not exist as a cohesive and united group if they did not subordinate themselves to the humble and steady minded Sages who were the meticulous recipients of the tradition. As G-d declared, “You shall come to the Kohanim (priests), the Levites, and to the judge who will be in those days; you shall inquire and they will tell you the word of Judgment. You shall do according to the word that they will tell you.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 17,9) It was necessary to teach this lesson in the most conspicuous and concrete manner, hence the earth swallowed up the dissidents. Although the questioning and probing of our leaders has always been encouraged concerning the laws, the questioning of the authority of our Torah sages to be leaders has not. Josephus, a secular Jewish politician during the Second Temple era who eventually joined the side of the Roman army against his own people, although not the greatest protagonist of the Jewish Sages, concedes, “The cities give great attestations to [the Sages] on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and also their discourses.” He further states, “Our principle care of all is to educate our children well, and we think it to be the most necessary business of our whole life to observe the laws that have been given us.”
We are recipients of a glorious tradition that traces back to Moshe at Sinai. Our sources literally accomplish this, detailing each successive generation of Sages who received and passed on the tradition to thousands of students. We are told explicitly by G-d that our Jewish future is contingent to yielding to the judgments of the Sages “who will be in those (future) days”. This command is no less imperative today than when it was when given to Moshe at Sinai 3316 years ago.
Have a Good Shabbos!
(1) 1908-2001; a prolific author and popular speaker who specialized in mussar (introspective Jewish self-improvement) and Jewish history, Rabbi Miller commanded a worldwide following through his books and tapes: of the tens of thousands of Torah lectures he delivered, more than 2,000 were preserved on cassettes
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