Although the portion is called simply Korah, the assault on Moses’ leadership was led by a coalition of opponents with different gripes and different goals. The portion begins with a list of the leaders: “Korah son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav and On son of Pelet sons of Reuven” (Num. 16:1-2). One ringleader is from Moses’ own tribe, Levi; the other three are from the tribe of Reuven.
We read two reports about their complaint. (Some scholars see two stories woven together.) The first complaint, in verse 3, is that Moses and Aaron have usurped too much authority: “You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord. So why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?” This complaint seems particularly suited to the Levites among them, especially if the term “community” (edah) here refers to a tribe, as it most likely does in the phrase “community chieftains” in verse 2. That phrase sounds like some of the “chieftains” (nesi’im) about whom we read back in chapter 7, and they were the heads of tribes. Korah the Levite is arguing that all Levites should be equally prominent, that the Levite brothers Moses and Aaron have illegitimately arrogated too much power and prominence to themselves.
Moses’ multiple responses indicate that he understands that his opponents are disunited. His first response is indeed to Korah and his community, with no mention of the Reuvenites. Only then, in verse 12, does he establish contact with Datan and Aviram. (“On son of Pelet” doesn’t reappear.) The Reuvenites, it seems, have a different beef (verse 13): “Is it too little that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to put us to death in the wilderness, that you should also actually lord it over us? What’s more, to a land flowing with milk and honey you have not brought us nor given us an estate of fields and vineyards.”
Their issue is not Moses’ alleged usurpation of power but the results he has produced: years of wandering in the wilderness — a fate worse, in their inflated rhetoric, than remaining in Egypt. There also may be an echo of ancient resentment here: Reuven, founder of the tribe and firstborn among 12 brothers, was supplanted as leader by Yehudah. Perhaps all Reuvenites were jealous of any powerful Israelite.
Now, after hearing the Reuvenites’ complaints, Moses is incensed by the implication of incompetence and corruption. He appeals to the Lord, who instructs him to warn the people away from the doomed rebel leaders (verse 24): “Speak to the community, saying, ‘Move up from around the dwelling of Korah, Datan, and Aviram.’”
The commentators disagree about the nature of what follows (verse 25): “And Moses arose and went to Datan and Aviram, and the elders of Israel went after him.” Moses now turned, not to the people at large, as instructed, nor, alternatively, to the leadership front of the opposition. He went just to Datan and Aviram.
The verses that follow report that Moses then indeed warned off any fellow travelers from “the tents of these wicked men,” hinting that soon they would be done in, and this is followed by a face-to-face confrontation with Datan and Aviram and their families. Perhaps that was all Moses aimed to accomplish. But in good midrashic fashion, some commentators stop after verse 25 and ask: Why did Moses go only to Datan and Aviram? Was something signaled or even actually said just then, before the warning off and the confrontation?
Rashbam, a medieval commentator who usually aims for simple contextual interpretation, here gives us a view with roots in the looser, more creative tradition of rabbinic midrash: “‘[And Moses rose] and went to Datan and Aviram’ — in case they might repent.” Rashbam’s Moses wants to drive a wedge between the factions of his opposition, but not in order to “divide and conquer.” Instead he makes a last-ditch attempt to save at least some of the rebels from the divine wrath that is about to annihilate them.
In this effort, Moses is joined by the elders. They may have come just to observe the events, but it is tempting to see them, too, as aiming for a last-minute reconciliation with at least some of Moses’ adversaries. Rabbi Sholom of Belz taught that they were following Moses for the sake of making peace, adding, “Lovers of peace in every generation will go to all sorts of Datans and Avirams.” Would they be wrong to do so?
Peretz Rodman teaches at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University and at Hebrew College Online and serves as president of the (Masorti/Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly of Israel. He and his family live in Jerusalem.