Schechter Logo for Print

Why did the Tribe of Reuven Join Korah’s Rebellion?


How One’s Neighborhood Can Make All the Difference and Frame One’s Actions: The Story of Korah in This Week’s Torah Portion

(My thanks to my brother Cantor Abe Golinkin who gave me the idea for this Dvar Torah.)

Shalom, our parashah begins with the following verse:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח בֶּן־יִצְהָ֥ר בֶּן־קְהָ֖ת בֶּן־לֵוִ֑י וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם בְּנֵ֧י אֱלִיאָ֛ב וְא֥וֹן בֶּן־פֶּ֖לֶת בְּנֵ֥י רְאוּבֵֽן:

“And Korah the son of Yizhar, the son of Kehat the son of Levi took, along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, the sons of Reuven.”

The question is: Why did the members of the Tribe of Reuven join the rebellion of Korah and his family, who are actually Levites?

One answer appears in Midrash Tanhuma – which was apparently edited in the Land of Israel in the sixth century — and it says there as follows:

דתן ואבירם: מכאן אמרו חכמים זיכרונם לברכם: אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו, טוב לצדיק טוב לשכנו.

“From this our Sages of blessed memory said: Woe to the evil person and Woe to his neighbor, Good for the righteous person, Good for his neighbor.

For Datan and Aviram died in the disagreement – the rebellion of Korah – because they were neighbors of Korah. He was in the South end of the camp as it says in the verse in Bamidbar chapter 3, ‘And the families of Kehat were camping in the South’ and the flag of Reuven was next to them as it says there,

דגל מחנה ראובן תימנה

‘The flag of the camp of Reuven was in the South,’ and therefore they participated with them.

On the other hand, the flag of Judah and the flags of Issachar and Zevulun which were in the East were next to the camp of Moshe, Aharon and his sons. (They then bring the verses to prove that).

Finally, the midrash concludes: Datan and Aviram, who were neighbors of Korah, were part of the rebellion – and therefore they were smitten together with Korah and they passed from the world.”

The same idea is summarized by Rashi in his commentary on the verse.

Rashi says: “Because the tribe of Reuven was found to the South of the camp, and was a neighbor of Kehat and his sons, who were also in the South, therefore they participated with Korah in his rebellion,

אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו

Woe to the evil person and woe to his neighbor.”

Furthermore, the same idea appears in a later midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah which was just republished in a new, critical edition by the Schechter Institute, edited by Prof. Hananel Mack and myself.

There too, we have this same idea with one interesting variation. There is says

אשרי צדיק ואשרי שכנו,

“Happy is the Tzaddik, happy is his neighbor.”

Finally, Prof. Jacob Milgrom repeats the same idea in the JPS commentary on Numbers: “Being encamped to the South alongside the Kohatites, [the descendants of Reuven] were neighbors with Korah from which one can learn ‘Woe to the wicked, Woe unto his neighbor.’ “

He then refers to the diagram in his commentary, pg. 340 where you see visually that Reuven is in the camp next to Korah and the Kohatites and on the other hand, in the East, you have Judah, Issachar and Zevulun encamped next to Moshe and Aharon.

Prof. Jacob Milgrom’s rendition of tribal camping neighborhood, from JPS Numbers commentary, pg. 340

This rabbinic teaching is still very relevant to our lives today:

If children or teenagers hang out with good or honest children, they will probably emulate them. If they hang out with children who smoke or curse or cut class or take drugs, they will probably emulate them.

If people live in a good town or neighborhood, they will probably emulate their neighbors. But, if they live in a bad town or neighborhood, they will probably emulate those neighbors.

Finally, in Israel’s war with Hamas, despite incredible efforts by the IDF, innocent civilians have been killed. This is because of the principle:

אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו.

“Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor.”

Unfortunately, Hamas has embedded itself in schools and hospitals, and neighborhoods of just regular people who live in Gaza and the result is that those people have been harmed by the current war.

We hope and pray for the defeat of Hamas and for the speedy release of the Hostages!



David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone