The issue with Korah and his revolt against Moshe and Aharon is important, in my view, because of the reaction of the People of Israel to his words.
There is no doubt that we can understand Korah’s complaint. His question is apparently simple and thought provoking: “all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
He demanded Moshe to stop ruling and to share the power equally with all the people. He demanded democracy, because everyone can and has the right to govern.
It is a just demand, not only in our modern eyes, but it should have been so also for Moshe. He did not accept Joshua’s government zeal and did not stop Eldad and Meidad, who were prophesying in the camp, while Moshe and the seventy elders were outside. He rebuked Joshua, indeed: “Are you zealous for my sake? May all the Lord’s people be prophets!” (id., 11:29).
So, equality and democracy. What’s wrong with that?
The problem is that Korah’s sentence isn’t more than a kind of news headline. The contents of what he really demanded appears when Moshe calls him to order: “Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel… And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (id. 16:9-10).
Korah really wanted more power for hiself and his comrades. It was none of his business whether the people has or lacks equal rights to govern. He wanted to be both Levy and Priest.
However, in the public opinion he was regarded as a hero who sacrifices himself for the sake of the People. His speech and his actions were those of a demagogue, who takes advantage of the emotional and unrestrained reaction of the masses to arrive to his personal goals.
The people went astray by what was apparently just. It did not really examine the situation. If it is apparently so, then it is definitely so.
This is the core of the problem presented in our parashah. Because a quick judgment like this one, that seals the fate based on a superficial impression, bodes disaster. And it happened, indeed – death and destruction.
Why the Korah affaire comes right after the paragraph commanding the tzitzit (the fringes in the garments)? There is a midrash explaining that Korah took a tallit, a garment, made completely of t’khelet, the product with which only one thread of the tzitzit had to be colored. He then asked Moshe if it had to have tzitzit also, since it was completely made of t’khelet. When Moshe answered positively, Korah treated him with disdain. (Jer. Tal. Sanhedrin 10:5, B’midbar Rabbah Korah 18:3)
We must nevertheless remember that one of the central points in the commandment of tzitzit is “that you may not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” (id. 15:39). The heart, in the Bible represents the thinking. Do not let your thinking go astray after what your eyes see. Examine, inspect, discern. That is what holiness is about. That is what we are commanded to do.
The story in Korah, the reaction of the People to demagogic addresses, is the opposite example of what the Torah expects from us, of what God commanded us to recall in and by the tzitzit. “Do not go about”, but they did. They let themselves be influenced by the headlines their eyes saw, they were captivated by the nice voice of the populist tyrant who sweetens his words with nonsense that sounds good. Nonsense quickly absorbed and that stands in the way of good sense, of logic and of reality testing.
May all the Lord’s people be prophets! Prophets, but not a flock following the Siren’s song.