At times, I’ve wondered if Korach might have been treated just a bit too harshly by Moses and God.
In this week’s portion, the Israelites are heading out into the wilderness, wandering in earnest. Already on more than one occasion, individuals and groups within the Israelite community have essentially asked the question, “Who’s in charge here?” Before the plagues, they challenged Moses’ authority. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, they challenged Aaron’s authority. And even earlier, in the book of Genesis, Abraham challenged God’s authority, standing up to the Holy One of blessing when God was resolved to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
Imagine that – Jews questioning authority! It seems that challenging the establishment is an almost ingrown aspect of our Jewish nature. I have to say that I like this aspect of our tradition; it challenges us to not simply accept everything we’re told but to ask questions to bring forward our doubts, and, perhaps most importantly, to be willing to speak truth to power.
So here is Korach, a member of Moses’ own tribe, asking Moses and Aaron what seems to be a fair, honest, if challenging question; essentially, who put you in charge? Specifically, Korach and his minions said to Moses and Aaron, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
For this act of rebellion, Korach is rejected in the Torah. God opens up the earth, swallowing the rebels, and killing them. What is it that makes Korach different from Abraham? Why is what Korach does so profoundly more terrible than Nathan pointing his finger at King David? Rabbi Daniel Zemel has written that, for us, Korach is the personification of the rebel who has no cause. But on the surface of the text, it’s not immediately clear why that’s the case.
The great 20th century commentator Nechama Leibowitz asks us to read Korach’s words very carefully. “For all the community are holy,” Korach says. Leibowitz notes that Korach uses the plural “community are holy” as opposed to “community is holy.” She teaches that in doing so, Korach is describing the Israelite community as a gathering of individuals, rather than a collective unit. Korach’s effort is not a mission of holiness and is not intended to advance a nobler purpose; it is, instead, a challenge rooted in his own individual ambition. Leibowitz calls Korach and his followers “a band of malcontents, each harboring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron and hoping thereby to attain their individual desires.” (Studies in Bamidbar, 1980)
In this way, Korach is like the wicked son of the Passover seder but on steroids; not only does Korach exclude himself from the community, but he obliterates the idea of community altogether, exchanging it for an “every person for themselves” attitude. Through his actions, Korach is truly a model of the destructive voice, challenging Moses and Aaron for no other reason than to tear down their leadership and to enhance his own personal advancement.
What then are we to learn from this story, which, despite its violent end, remains an evocative part of our sacred text? Surely it does not mean that we are never to challenge authority. Judaism has at its core a countercultural, challenging spirit. In other places in our sacred text we are called upon – commanded even – to shake the status quo, to rock the establishment, and to rebel. Perhaps from Korach we can learn, however, about what kind of rebels we should be. We cannot rebel simply to destroy those in power. We cannot rebel simply to further our own personal goals. We can challenge authority only if we have a higher, sustaining cause.
All of the community is holy. We have seen, even recently, leaders who have chosen to lead simply for their own self-aggrandizement, or who have chosen, once in power, to misuse that power for their own personal gain. We should rebel and reject this type of leader.
All of the community is holy. We have known leaders who have forgotten that we are a collective community that needs leaders who will look out for the welfare of all. We should reject these leaders, and seek out those who understand, and hold them accountable to do justice by the whole community.
Sometimes in the Torah, we learn as much, if not more, from the negative role models as we do from the positive ones.