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Drash on Korach 2023

Rabbi Martha Bergadine

United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

This week’s parashah, Korach, recounts the disastrous uprising against Moses led by
Korach and his comrades Datan and Abiram. Together with 250 Israelite chieftains,
they confront Moses and Korach gives voice to their complaints:

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in
their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
(Number 16:1 –3).

Korach’s words are designed to whip up sentiment against Moses and foment a coup
d’etat against the leadership that God has decreed. But the attempted rebellion ends
horribly when the earth opens up and swallows Korach, Datan, and Abiram, and
their families and followers, and the 250 rebellious chieftains are consumed by fire.

The next day, the people continue to grumble against Moses until finally a plague
strikes, killing thousands. It is only when Aaron makes expiation on behalf of the
people that the dying ends and Moses’ authority is reestablished.

Commentators have traditionally attributed Korach’s motivation to his arrogance
and an inflated sense of ego. His grievances are viewed as manipulative and ginned
up for personal gain. Pirke Avot goes so far as to cite Korach’s illegitimate
controversy as the example par excellence of a dispute that is “not for the sake of
Heaven.” More specifically, Rashi and Midrash Rabbah explain that Korach’s anger
arises from his not being appointed head of the Kehatite house instead being passed
over for a younger cousin. As result, Korach’s accusations are judged as being
hypocritical and his ego-driven anger as having fueled his rebellion.

But the question still arises — what drove the other 250 chieftains to follow Korach
pulling their families and followers into his disastrous wake? I believe it too is
anger. As Orchot Tzaddikim, a 15th century commentary, teaches, “The angry man
will not be very wise, for anger drives wisdom from one’s heart . . .” But I believe the
followers’ anger springs from a different source than does that of Korach, and it is a
type of anger to which we ourselves are vulnerable today.

Psychologists often term anger as a secondary emotion – that is an emotion that is
fueled by other emotions. Anger as a secondary emotion serves to shift the focus
from even more painful emotions like shame, fear, loneliness, hurt or
disappointment, and protects us from feeling vulnerable. As a result, our true
feelings are often hidden when anger is on display.

There is no doubt that the Israelites were vulnerable to feelings of fear, grief, and
loss at the time Korach stepped up and led the chieftains in confronting Moses. Not
only had the people endured slavery and the overwhelming experiences of the
Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, but since arriving at the Wilderness of Paran,
they had twice experienced death – at Taberah and Kibroth-hattaavah –
on a large scale. Further, Ramban states that after the incident of the spies, which
immediately precedes Korach’s rebellion, when it became clear that that generation
would die in the desert, the people’s hearts became “embittered.” It is instructive to
note that the Hebrew word for “anger” – ka’as – can also mean “grief,” “sorrow,” and
“fretfulness.” Loss, fear, and hurt no doubt made the people vulnerable to Korach’s
rhetorical attacks and stoked their rage.

We too live in angry times. Political discourse has become vicious and can spill over
into the personal driving friends and family apart. Road rage and hostile behavior
on airplanes have increased. Interactions between customers and service employees
are more fraught and workplace relationships can grow strained. A quick check of
Google trends indicates that searches for the phrase “I am angry” are currently of
high interest and trending up, while searches for the phrase “Why am I angry?” hit
their highest level in a year this past week (June 11-17.) Further, the Asia Pacific
region was well represented in this data with New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore
among the countries where these phrases were most often searched.

Our current level of anger is understandable. All of us are still dealing with the
trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic – three long years of fear and grief and
uncertainty. And even though the isolation of the pandemic has ended, studies show
that there is a worldwide loneliness “epidemic.” On a more macro scale, serious
political, economic, and environmental challenges confront our societies.

All of this can feel overwhelming but we cannot give in. We must learn from the
story of Korach and his followers that the anger that masks our true feelings leads to
destruction. Nothing productive comes of it. The Orchot Tzaddikim teaches that
anger destroys personal relationships and drives out positive emotions–
forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity. And anger can blind us making
us vulnerable to those who do not have our best interests at heart and wish to
manipulate us.

Refusing to give into anger isn’t easy. It takes courage to acknowledge and feel the
true emotions that underlie our anger – fear, grief, disappointment– and to find
ways to soothe those hurts so that we do not lash out and wound others. It takes
generosity to have compassion on those whose shame, loss, or sadness give rise to
anger directed at us. It takes commitment to find ways to connect more deeply to
each other and our communities, a source of solace and the best antidote to

Our challenge is to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and refuse to hide behind the
mask of anger, but if we do so, then we will grow from strength to strength as Ben
Zoma taught:

Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32),
“Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the
captor of a city.” (Avot 4:1)

Find more Parashat Hashavua