In his work, “God in Search of Man,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “In other religions, gods, heroes, priests are holy; to the Bible, not only God but ‘the whole community is holy’ (Numbers 16:3).” Rabbi Heschel’s teaching pivots around the concept that the distinct nature of Judaism, in contrast to the world’s other faith traditions, is that every member of the Jewish people is on a direct spiritual quest for holiness through what he names “the divinity of deeds,” i.e., mitzvot in general and righteous acts in particular. Another way of stating his point is that there is no intermediary between a Jew and God. Rather, each person has the opportunity to draw close to the Divine Presence through the performance of sacred acts on his/her own. Ironically, however, Heschel relies upon a verse for his teaching that comes from this week’s parsha. It is a verse spoken by the rebellious figure of Korach, a Levitical leader who inspires a popular uprising against Moses and Aaron, the leaders of the desert hierarchy by which the Israelites are organized and governed.
Korach’s assertion is that Moses and Aaron have gone too far by raising themselves above a society in which every individual, by virtue of his or her membership among the people of Israel, has the right to encounter and emulate God in the powerful manner that Moses and Aaron have co-opted for themselves as leaders. In response to his threat, God calls for a ritual throwdown between Korach’s assembly and Moses and Aaron. Korach and his followers instantaneously perish with their fire-pan offerings: the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his family while a heavenly fire consumes his 250 followers. Thus, a p’shat reading of the Torah narrative would have us conclude that the lesson at the heart of the encounter between Korach, Moses, and Aaron is to respect authority and avoid confrontation, lest you perish for your wicked, disobedient motives.
As Jews who live in a Western democracy, we could probably agree that, in order for humanity to govern itself, a society needs a healthy degree of respect for authority. Similarly, most American Jews would probably agree that the freedom to challenge authority takes prominence in our society because civic skepticism is such an indispensable element of our democracy. As American Jews, we may place these two notions on equal footing with each other, standing with one foot in the ancient Israelite world and the other foot in contemporary American society. Or as the founding philosopher of the Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, stated it, we are living in two civilizations.
In light of this dual position, we can say unambiguously that the infamous rebel has a valid point. Korach is correct in his argument that “kulam k’doshim” – “all are holy.” A look at one of the meforshim (rabbinic commentators) on Parashat Korach will reveal the same insight. The 16th-century Italian exegete Sforno asserts in line with Korach’s argument that each and every member of the assembly of Israel is holy “from the sole of the foot unto the head.” To sum up, Heschel teaches that every person has access to the divine encounter by virtue of our inherent holiness and the vehicle of the mitzvot, and Sforno maintains that the entire being of each Israelite is holy. So why is Korach and his band exorcised so harshly for making the same point?
One interpretation of the root cause of the confrontation and its outcome is revealed in Sefer Likkutim, a late collection of midrashim of probable tannaitic and ammoraic origin. The midrash narrates that Korach, motivated by hatred and jealousy, essentially organizes a smear campaign against Moses, carefully planned to cast God’s laws as absurd and Moses as a fool. So, when Moses teaches the Israelites about the law of tzitzit, which specifies that a blue cord must be attached on fringes of the garment, Korach retorts with an objection, “What if the garment is already blue?!” In another account from Midrash Tanchuma, Korach goes so far as ordering the creation of 250 blue cloaks for a group of magistrates and orchestrates a public demonstration against Moses and Aaron in front of the mishkan. Korach’s oppositions take different forms in various midrashic sources, but what signifies his approach in all of his arguments is scorn and enmity. Ultimately, Korach crafts his arguments in order to assert that Moses was never commanded by God and that he simply made up the laws himself.
We are living during a moment when, both in America and the Middle East, the ideals of responsible government are violently engaged in an intense standoff with deeply corrupt motives on the part of people who want only for themselves, no matter what the expense to other human beings. Our societies are mired in corruptive forces that count on the media to promulgate our self-interests, and every single one of us participates in Korach’s revolt whenever we cease to view the world with a self-surpassing eye. That dark, narrow-minded impulse is within each of us, but it is not the same urge as the one that compels us to speak out against power when it is being misused. Unlike the impulse that agitates for justice and seeks peace, the rebellious impulse, once pierced, blackens the world like the plume of oil under the sea we have been watching for weeks and weeks. On a symbolic plain it makes perfect sense, then, that the earth opened up in an abrogation of nature to swallow Korach. In the absence of his ability to see beyond his own motives, only a divine reversal would restore the balance of civilization.
The episode of Korach does not leave us in the dark, however. In the face of this chaotic rebellion against the priesthood, Aaron stands out as a figure after whom we can model ourselves. As Mishnah Avot 1:2 guides us to make ourselves students of Aaron, “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom,” who “loved peace and pursued peace.” The chassidic master known as the Sfat Emet taught that this is the reason why God chose Aaron for the priesthood. He saw beyond himself and acted for the greater good of society and humanity. May we strive to follow Aaron’s example and always seek to act in harmony with highest ideals of both our ancient heritage and our contemporary values, even as they continue to evolve through our very own actions.
Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel, Maywood