Rabbi Bernie Fox

Sin Leads to Sin

And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon.  And they said to them, "You have enough.  For the entire congregation is sacred.  And Hashem is among them. Why do you elevate yourself above the congregation of Hashem?" (Sefer BeMidbar 16:3) 

Our parasha discusses Korach’s rebellion against Moshe.  Korach challenged Moshe’s appointment of Aharon as Kohen Gadol – head priest.  He also challenged the status of Aharon’s sons and descendants as Kohanim – the priests.  Korach promoted a more egalitarian system.  He wanted the priesthood to be distributed more broadly within the nation. 

This episode follows the Torah's narrative of the sin of the spies and its consequences.  Does this mean that there is a relationship between these two episodes?   

Let’s begin our search for an answer with a question raised by Ramban – Nachmanides.  Datan and Aviram were two of the leaders of this rebellion.  They were Korach’s partners.  Moshe instructed them to come to him.  He wished to speak with them and resolve the conflict.  Datan and Aviram rejected Moshe's summons and specified grievances.  They said Moshe had failed to bring them into the Land of Israel.  Instead, they were destined to die in the wilderness.  With these complaints, Datan and Aviram added a new element to the rebellion.  Korach did not mention their complaints.  His issue was very specific.  He questions the distribution of priesthood.  Why raise a completely new and unrelated issue? 

Ramban explains that the issues are connected.  The episode of the spies changed the relationship between Moshe and Bnai Yisrael.  Moshe had led the nation out of bondage.  He had brought them to Sinai.  At the sin of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf – Moshe intervened with the Almighty and saved the nation from destruction.  Moshe cared for the people.  He secured their every need.  As a result, Bnai Yisrael was devoted and loyal to him.  This does not mean the people always understood or agreed with his decisions.  However, they did not challenge his authority. 

The sin of the spies changed this relationship. Moshe did not save the generation. They would die in the wilderness and not enter the Land of Israel. The people were disappointed with their destiny and with Moshe. 

This disappointment enabled Korach to challenge Moshe and attract followers.  He seized this opportunity.  Datan and Aviram joined this rebellion.  In their response to Moshe, they explained their motivations.  They revealed why they and others joined Korach and challenged Moshe’s authority.  They were no longer willing to follow Moshe mindlessly.  They told Moshe that he had failed them.  He no longer deserved the people’s trust and obedience.   

This answers our original question: Is there a connection between the incident of the spies and Korach’s rebellion? Indeed, the incident of the spies allowed Korach to stage his rebellion and gain popular support.1 

Everything for the Cause! 

Also, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards.  Even if you put out the eyes of these men we will not come up.  (Sefer BeMidbar 16:14) 

Moshe summons Datan and Aviram.  They refuse to respond.  They tell Moshe that he failed to fulfill his promises to Bnai Yisrael.  They proclaim that they will not relent in their rebellion.  Even if Moshe punishes them, they will not respond to his summons.  Moshe becomes angry with Datan and Aviram.  He prays to Hashem for their punishment. 

Moshe had remarkable patience with Bnai Yisrael.  He tried to bring the rebellion to a peaceful conclusion.  However, at this point Moshe abruptly changed his approach.  Instead of continuing his efforts to find a solution, he asked the Almighty to punish Datan and Aviram.  What caused this change? 

The remarks of Datan and Aviram represent a change in Moshe’s understanding of the rebellion.  Until this point, he believed that Korach and his followers wanted greater prominence.  They wished to be priests and leaders.  Moshe assumed their motives were selfish.  He concluded that he needed to show the rebels that their quarrel did not serve their self-interest.  His efforts, to this point, were directed to this end.  He told Korach and his followers to offer the Ketoret – the incense.  Hashem would accept the offering of one He selected as His Kohen – priest.  They understood that they risked their lives by participating in this challenge.  Hashem would kill those not selected.2  Moshe gave them a day to consider the challenge.  He hoped they would realize that accepting the challenge would lead to their destruction.3

Datan and Aviram convinced Moshe that this approach would not work. They had elevated the rebellion to a moral cause.  They had convinced themselves that they were fighting for an exalted purpose.  Because of this, they put aside self-interest.  They told Moshe they would not respond to his summons even if you took out our eyes.  They made it clear that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for this cause.   The bloodiest wars have been fought over such issues, which is understandable. In battle, the participants risk death. Self-interest alone cannot support such a gamble. The combatants must believe that some greater good will be served through their death. Once committed to this lofty goal, the participants will endure hardship and danger. 

After interacting with Datan and Aviram, Moshe knew his opponents were engaged in a "holy war."  He could not win the battle by convincing Korach and his followers that their actions were not in their best interest. He could only appeal to Hashem to eliminate the rebels.  

An Earth-Shattering Event

If Hashem creates a new phenomenon and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that is 

theirs and they descend alive to the grave, then you will know that these men have angered Hashem.  

(BeMidbar 16:30) 

Moshe declares that he will prove his legitimacy with a miracle. The ground will open and consume Datan and Aviram, showing that he acts only as the Almighty's agent and that Datan and Aviram's accusations are unjustified. 

The commentators are troubled by Moshe’s reasoning.  He says that he will be vindicated if Hashem takes the lives of Datan and Aviram with an unprecedented miracle.  What is this incredible wonder?  The ground will open and swallow them and their households.  The commentators protest that this is not a remarkable miracle.  Moshe described an earthquake. An earthquake is not a unique or miraculous phenomenon. 

Ramban – Nachmanides – responds that there were two aspects to this phenomenon.  First, the earth opened.  This is not unique.  However, second, the opening behaved like a mouth.  It swallowed specific individuals and then immediately closed.  This behavior is unique, and it distinguishes this phenomenon from an earthquake.4 

1 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1. 

2 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 15:6. 

3 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 15:5. 

4 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:30.