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yesh omrim

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Korach the tax protestor

21 June 2004

In response to Korach’s rebellion, Moses tells God, “Do not pay attention to their gift; I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them” (Numbers 16:15). I pointed this out to my wife, contrasting it with Samuel’s statement on his deathbed, “Answer me, before the Eternal and his anointed: whose ox did I take? Whose donkey did I take?” (I Samuel 11), and she expounded it as follows:

This verse gives us the clue about what Korach and company are rebelling against. They’re not objecting to, say, the civil code that Moses has transmitted from God, or the organization of judges to hear claims that one Jew may have against another. They’re objecting to the tax structure that requires them to give a certain portion of their wealth to the priests. (A midrash quoted and translated here has Korach telling the Israelites a sob story about a widow who tried to eke out a living and was frustrated at every turn by the restrictions that Aharon placed on her property.) Moses essentially told God, “By setting my relatives up as members of this privileged class, you are creating this appearance of impropriety, so you have to do something to solve this problem.”

But without this institution of communal sacrifices, supported by tithes from everyone in the community, what would people have done? There would still be sacrifices, but people would only be sacrificing their own animals on their own altars for their own needs. And if everybody could perform sacrifices to God in private, then a person wouldn’t need much temptation before offering a sacrifice to an idol on the side, just to play it safe.

(By contrast, when Samuel is challenging people to identify any of their property that is in his hands, he is reminding them of his warnings about what would happen when the Jews got the king they were nagging him for.)