Most humans born in the past several thousand years have heard of Moshe; he is rightly one of the most recognized figures in human history.
Today, we might reasonably say that a strange burning bush is no basis for a system of government and that supreme executive power ought to derive from a mandate from the masses – although that’s not the worldview of the Torah’s story. But to the extent there’s some truth to that, we might expect Moshe’s glittering array of accomplishments would eventually win some popular support.
He stood up to Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire and won. He walked a generation of enslaved people into freedom, led them through a suddenly dry ocean, gathered them at Sinai, generating magic food and water along the barren desert waste, among other significant and unparalleled achievements.
And still, the people complained at every turn, resisting him every step of the way.
One particular time, the infamous Korach raised a formidable following and led an attempted coup and insurrection to supplant and usurp his cousin Moshe:
וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל־מֹשֶׁה וְעַל־אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב־לָכֶם כִּי כל־הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל־קְהַל ה – They combined against Moshe and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! All the community are holy, all of them! God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (16:3)
Korach directly paraphrases God’s directive at Sinai to be a nation of holy people – וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כל־הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים.
This was a grave challenge and threat to Moshe; as one famous quote put it, when you come at the king, you best not miss. Moshe fully understood the severity of the threat and responded rhetorically:
הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי־הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת־עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם׃ וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת־כּל־אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי־לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּה׃ – “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of God’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that God has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?!” (16:9,10)
But Moshe’s rhetoric appears to fall quite flat. There is no challenge or rebuttal to what Korach has claimed, no counter, checkmate, or riposte. It is only a restatement!
So when Moshe accuses him of wanting to be part of the priesthood – וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּה – it’s hard to see how that would give Korach a moment’s pause. Korach would simply say yes, precisely!
Where is Moshe’s winning argument?
The Shem Mi’Shmuel explains that Moshe’s accusation towards Korach was about how self-serving his coup was. Moshe’s rhetoric pierces through Korach’s claim of shared holiness; because, true as it might be, Korach’s words are empty and self-serving. God wants people dedicated to God’s purposes; Korach was out for himself – for power and influence, personal gain, and honor – תִּהְיוּ־לִי / בִקַּשְׁתֶּם.
Moshe’s entire story prominently features the enormous personal cost and self-sacrifice required to lead and serve his people faithfully. Ahron’s entire story was about connecting people with the divine and closer to each other. Korach’s accusation of overstepping – רַב־לָכֶם – rings hollow; Moshe’s accusation of Korach self-serving rings true – בִקַּשְׁתֶּם.
But perhaps there’s more to Moshe’s retort.
Our sages associate Korach with another famous villain – Haman.
Both were fabulously wealthy; our sages say they were two of the richest men in the world.
Both were highly influential; Haman was second only to the king, and Korach was in the highest tier as well. While Moshe and Ahron had the most visible roles, Korach and the whole family of Levi had critical and desirable roles in the new Jewish religion – הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת־עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם.
But with all Haman’s influence, prestige, power, and wealth, it wasn’t worthwhile to him without one thing:
וְכל־זֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁוֶה לִי בְּכל־עֵת אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי רֹאֶה אֶת־מרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ׃ – “Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordechai sitting in the palace gate!”
Perhaps the rhetoric in Moshe’s reply to Korach is similar – הַמְעַט מִכֶּם – is everything Korach already has so trivial? Are all the duties, honors, and privileges of the Mishkan still not enough?
Korach craves the one thing out of reach, the priesthood, without which everything counts for naught. Haman desires the one thing out of reach, Mordechai’s submission, without which everything counts for naught. Not only do they take their blessings for granted, they outright trivialize, discount, and devalue everything they have – הַמְעַט מִכֶּם.
What’s more, our sages note that the Torah refers to Haman in the story of Adam and Eve, hinted in God’s language to Adam asking if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, which can be read as an oblique allusion to Haman – הָמָן / הֲמִן־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכל־מִמֶּנּוּ אָכָלְתָּ.
Dayan Chanoch Ehrentrau observes that Adam and Eve’s mistake is the same color. God creates the entire universe for them; all of Creation is at their disposal in the palm of their hand. But they crave the one thing out of reach, one tree they can’t eat from, without which everything falls stale and flat.
It’s the same mistake as Korach and Haman, a consistent and recurring mistake humans make from the beginning.
While there is plenty of room for healthy ambition and aspirations for tomorrow, you must still value and appreciate where you stand today; otherwise, what’s it all worth? While you can say you appreciate your blessings, your actions may indicate otherwise.
Gratitude and its inverse form, taking things for granted, are recursive throughout the Torah, consistently one of its core themes and a leading indicator of prosperity or disaster. Korach, Haman, and Adam and Eve all suffered severe punishment for taking their blessings for granted – they lost everything, and everything quickly turned to nothing.
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, but sometimes you do know what you have; you just never think you’ll lose it while you chase the next thing.
Appreciate what you have, and who loves and cares for you. Don’t take the people or things in your life for granted, not just because nothing lasts forever – but because, as Moshe said, is it not enough?