Korach is one of five sidrot that derive their titles from individuals, each of whom engaged in actions that were revolutionary and ground breaking at the time. Korach’s claim to fame is that he briefly enters the narrative, challenges Moses, instigates a rebellion, and then disappears (literally) into the earth.
Moses had divided the people of Israel into several classes of holiness: the "ordinary" Israelites, Levites, Kohanim ("priests") and, at the pinnacle, the Kohen Gadol ("High Priest"). The Israelites — the farmers, merchants, craftsmen, soldiers and statesmen — were to pursue the "normal" existence of life and vocation. The tribe of Levi, however, was distinguished by G-d to serve as spiritual leaders and priests. Within the tribe of Levi itself, Aaron and his descendants were consecrated as "Kohanim" and entrusted with the primary role in serving G-d in the Sanctuary.
In this week’s sedra, Korach incites a mutiny by challenging Moses’s leadership at the granting of the kehunah (priesthood) to Aaron. He allies himself with Dathan and Abiran and a further 250 distinguished members of the community, who offer ketoret (incense) to prove their own worthiness for the role. The earth opens up and swallows the rebels and a fire consumes the ketoret offerers.
This week’s sidrah focuses on the story of Korach’s rebellion. Korach was in fact one of the greatest men in his generation but came to an ignominious end after he tried to quarrel with Moshe.
The Sidra of Korach is named after the man who organized a very serious rebellion against Moses and Aaron in the desert, in the second year after the Exodus. The name Korach is striking because it means bald. In Hebrew we have a proverb: YATZA KERE’ACH MIKAN UMIKAN. It means: “You come out bald on both sides”. It refers to a person who tries to attain something which is beyond him, only to lose everything. Korach was driven by jealousy and his punishment was that he was swallowed by the Earth.
Since being told on leaving Egypt they are now free, this week’s sedra continues with the Bnei Israel’s wanderings in the midbar where after a year’s long journey they have almost reached the Promised Land. Now they are told that as a result of the episode with the spies, they will have to journey for another 40 years and that this generation will probably die in the desert. Place yourself in their mind-set; that must have come as a devastating blow to each individual after all the build-up of hope, promises and joy experienced on leaving Egypt.
Four separate rebellions take place in this parshah: Korach against Aaron, Dathan and Aviram against Moses, the 250 tribal chiefs against Aaron, and finally the entire community against Moses. Korach mounts an attack on Moses’ credibility and leadership, and the episode ends with the total annihilation of Korach and his cohorts. "And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that were with Korach" (16:32).