The Children of Israel had reached their nadir. They faced a horrible fate; death in the desert. They would never see the land they had dreamed of since Moses had led them out of slavery. They were full of despair, a breeding ground for desperation “Behold, we perish, we are all lost, we are all lost.” Possibly, anyone that offered them a different fate would have immediately grabbed their attention, and probably, there were those eager to gain control. A recalcitrant mob would need little prompting.
Parsha Korach tells of two attempts at rebellions. The first was by Korach, a wealthy Levite. He directly challenged Moses’ position as the “lawgiver” and Aaron’s right to the office of Kohen Gadol. The second was a complementary challenge to Moses’ and his authority as the political and military head of the camp. It was led by Dathan and Aviram. They appeared to have joined forces.
Briefly, Dathan and Aviram and Korach gathered together two hundred and fifty men, leaders in their community, and approached Moses. Korach clothed his objections in altruism and sophistry: “You take too much upon yourself, seeing the entire congregation are holy, every one of them, and God is among them; why then do you hold yourselves above the Assembly of God?” Dathan and Aviram were not so subtle “is it a small thing you brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you also need make yourself also a prince over us?” Moses, they charged, had preferred his tribe, the Levites over all others, and within the tribe had installed his clan above all the others. As a leader he had no merit. He was leading them to death and not into the Promised Land.
Their words were creatively crafted, mixing enough truth with lies and deceits, to be attractive to the desperate. Traditional commentaries ascribe only evil intent to the provocateurs, but the Israelites were likely too numbed by recent events to sense their malice. Indeed Moses had professed that they were all a nation of priests. There was also validity in the angry protest led by Dathan; Moses was indeed leading them through the wilderness, wandering until the last of the generation that had left Egypt had perished.
The Children of Israel were charmed by the rebels; believing their cause to be just, seduced by their promise of change. Even the sight of Korach, Dathan and Aviram and their gang of two hundred and fifty, being swallowed up by the earth and lashed with fire from the heavens, did not resonate with the Israelites who continued to profess belief in the honesty of the rebels’ cause. The Torah relates that on the very next day; “all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying: ‘You have killed the people of God.” But for Moses’ intervention, any vestige of the Children of Israel would then and there have been wiped out. As it was, perhaps as a reminder that God’s wrath was still inflamed, a plague swept across the camp killing fourteen thousand and seven hundred souls.
And their fears were not mollified. The Israelites said to Moses: “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Every one that approaches the Tabernacle will die. Will we ever stop perishing?” That question continues to be asked, albeit sometimes in very different guises, and people continued to be seduced by those that provided a convenient answer that promised a future better than the past; some hope to lessen their despair. The narrative, it seems, was recorded in the Torah not as a remembrance of the perfidy of the Israelites, but as a testament to the frailty of their souls, reminding us, that despair is much like cancer, a small bit can prove fatal.