“For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (B’midbar 16:3)
Can there never be change
to the iron-clad order?
If you were not born
in the right social group
will your longing to serve
be directly discounted?
May you never rebel
nor challenge authority;
is ability sidelined
in favor of caste?
If you have grown up
an outsider, other;
a woman, a convert or
must you forfeit your dreams,
your loftiest yearnings
or be wholly consumed
in darkening depths?
This parasha relates the story of the eponymous Korach, Moses’ first cousin, who instigates a rebellion against Moses, accusing him of keeping the power for himself and his brother Aaron. He attracts a following of a few ringleaders and another 250 eminent tribesmen. Korach says, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (B’midbar 16:3) Korach takes specific issue with Aaron’s appointment as High Priest. Moses suggests a test on the next day in which the contenders all bring an incense offering and God will indicate His choice by accepting or rejecting the offerings. Moses begs the rebels to desist, but to no avail, so he pleads with God to reject the offering of the rebels. In the meantime Korach incites the people against Moses. God becomes angry and wants to destroy the people but Moses and Aaron intercede so the people are saved, apart from Korach and his family who are swallowed up by the earth while the 250 followers are consumed by a heavenly fire. The people then complain that Moses and Aaron caused the rebels’ deaths and a plague breaks out in which thousands die. Moses then instructs Aaron how to quell the plague. Finally God reiterates His choice of Aaron with a miracle in which each of the tribes presents a staff, and only Aaron’s blossoms.
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser devotes a commentary that he wrote in 2013 on Parashat Korach http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/nurturing-and-caring-for-your-inner-korach, to mitigating Korach’s bad reputation, which Reb Jeff believes may have been deserved at the end, but was not so at the beginning.
He says, “I want to sing the song of Korach, that rebel of all rebels who opposed Moses and was punished with fire from God and swallowed up by the earth. I want to remember him with some fondness and remember that we all have a little Korach in us. It is a spirit that we need to develop and nurture lovingly.”
Reb Jeff is not alone in noting that Korach’s initial argument is both powerful and even democratic. He says, “Korach held that there was no good reason why Moses and Aaron alone should be in charge of the whole Israelite community — dictating the laws, deciding how they would be enforced, and appointing the heads of each tribe and clan. Korach held that it was wrong for Moses to assume the exclusive right to decree God’s will. Korach declared that God was not the exclusive possession of any one person — no matter how wise or pious — and that each Israelite should be recognized as having his or her own sacred relationship with God.”
Reb Jeff continues that it seems that Moses could hear some truth in Korach’s words as he immediately prostrated himself, which in Ancient Eastern culture indicated recognition of the other’s superiority, and was a sign of humility. Reb Jeff adds, “Moses understood that he was being chastised for a personal failing he had known about for a long time.” He adds that even before the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro had cautioned Moses about his inability to delegate power (in Shemot 18:14,17-18). He says, “Moses was something of a control freak, to put it in modern parlance, and Korach was calling him on it. Moses needed to let go.”
However, Reb Jeff suggests that before embarking on a psychoanalysis of Moses’ personality, we need to focus on Korach. He wonders, “What kind of personality might we attribute to a person who recognizes when an authority figure has gone too far? What could we say about someone who challenges power run amok? We could say that Korach himself was power hungry and he used Moses’ personality flaw as a point of leverage to attack him and to attract other Israelites to follow him. That is possible. It is also possible that Korach had a strong sense of fair play and the courage to stand up against injustice — even against a very powerful foe.”
Reb Jeff asks whether, if this episode occurred today, you would be supporting “the man who says he uniquely speaks for God and has the unilateral authority to set laws over you” or “the man who challenges the established order and declares that power should be shared by all?”
He suggests that Korach is not fighting a meaningless battle; either he wants to propel himself up the rungs of power, or he wants to bring an awareness of everyone’s right to holiness. He believes that a change in the order of things is needed.
Reb Jeff believes “That is a spirit to be nurtured. We need people who passionately want to change the world.
“Jewish tradition teaches that the way the world is right now is not the way that God intends it to be. We are living in a broken world, either because of a cosmic catastrophe (as Lurianic Kabbalah teaches), because the link between heaven and earth was broken by the destruction of the Temple, or simply because error and sin are the nature of imperfect human beings. The world is in need of repair, tikkun olam, and human beings are needed to make it right.”
But Reb Jeff does not end there. He adds that having a desire to change the fixed order is not enough. Although Korach’s initial thesis might have been appropriate, at some point it becomes distorted, turning him into a threat to the order of things. Reb Jeff pinpoints that moment, when Moses challenges Korach and his coterie to bring incense offerings to God, and let God indicate His choice. Moses is suggesting that Korach and his followers essentially carry out the job of the priests, alongside Aaron. Korach does not see the inconsistency in his agreeing to the plan.
Reb Jeff points out, “Korach had been at his best when he declared that his rebellion against Moses was not about himself. He had said, “All of the community — all of them! — are holy.” Now, however, it was Moses’ turn to recognize Korach’s personality flaw and use it against him. If Korach had answered the challenge differently, the story would have ended differently. If he had said, “No, Moses. It is not for me to take up God’s offering, or even for my 250 followers to do so. It is the right of every Israelite, for they are all members of a nation of priests,” then he would have had a strong moral basis to continue his challenge.
“But he didn’t. Korach’s ego was too invested in everything he did. He may have been sincere about wanting to create a more democratic and just society, but Moses demonstrated that Korach also really wanted power for himself. The greatest distinction between the personality of Korach and the personality of Moses is that, when challenged, Moses threw himself to the ground in humble admission of his flaws. Korach, in contrast, lifted his ego up and claimed the right to assume the highest honor.
“Korach saw something that was truly wrong — even Moses knew that it was wrong — and he wanted to do something about it. So, let us sing some praises for Korach! Let us recognize that there is a part of us also that does not just want to complain about injustice of the world, but actually wants to change it. We need more people like that … but only up to a point.”
Reb Jeff adds that it is a delicate balance between challenging inequity and retaining humility, and history is replete with examples of people who have fought for justice but once they have become powerful, have metamorphosed into leaders who are more tyrannical than those they ousted. He concludes that Korach may have been right in his ideas of justice and equality, but his ego also fueled his cause and led to his downfall.
Rabbi Gail Labovitz entitles her commentary on Parashat Korach from 2014, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12162 “The Most Difficult Parashah.” In it, she describes her journey into a stricter standard of Jewish practice than that with which she grew up. However, she says that there was one issue that always held her back from a whole-hearted move into that life-style, and that was gender. She says, “More particularly, gender segregation of Orthodox life and the rights and responsibilities denied to women in Orthodox synagogues and study halls. And it was a challenge for me from the beginning. I still remember a conversation with a man I knew at the time, one of the people who was most influential on my journey of personal discovery, about this very issue. What he said to me then was an iteration of a common apologetic (and I choose that word quite deliberately) on this topic. He said – I paraphrase – “I might want to be a Kohen, but I’m not a Kohen, and nothing I do can make me one. I have to accept that I am an Israelite, and the limitations that go along with that.” The implication was meant to be clear: he could not alter having been born an Israelite, and I could not alter having been born a woman, and the only proper response was acceptance of our God-given roles. But even then, at least one response was apparent to me. Was this not comparing apples and oranges? Just how many privileges do the Kohanim – a small minority of the Jewish population – generally enjoy in Judaism today? – The first aliyah, the opportunity to say Birkat Kohanim before the congregation…and not much more. How could exclusion from those few perks (which also happen to come with a few traditional limitations, such as a ban on marrying a woman who is a convert or previously divorced) possibly compare to the near complete exclusion (in most of the Orthodox world) of half the population from participation in the synagogue, in the most rigorous forms of Jewish learning, in religious decision making for the community as a whole?” She adds though, that in the eras of both the Mishkan and later of both Temples, when being a (male)Kohen bore some rather significant rights and responsibilities, and the (male) Kohen was indeed quite distinct from his Israelite co-religionists, or even the other members of his own tribe of Levi who were not descendants of Aaron. He would serve in the Mishkan or Temple, would have access to certain sacred areas denied other Israelites not of the priestly caste, and would also receive assorted portions of, among other things, sacrificial meat, first fruits, first-born animals, tithes, a portion of dough. This, it seems, is one of the things that sparked Korach’s rebellion: the privilege derived only by accident of birth. Rabbi Labovitz focuses on this aspect of the parasha even though she notes that there are several strands of narrative that run through it. She says that after reading through the parasha and various interesting points and commentaries, she concluded that the reason this may be the hardest parasha of all to explain, and not just because the narrative is complex, is that to concentrate on any one particular point is “to attempt to pretend one needn’t grapple with the problematic heart of the parashah as a whole. Which is this: In the modern, Westernized, post-Emancipation context (and perhaps others too) in which I presume most if not all of my readers reside, wouldn’t it seem that our natural urge would be to side with Korah and his band? His/their protest against the autocratic leadership of Moses would seem to fit well with our democratic and meritocratic ideals, in which all people have (or should have) access to roles of leadership, and such roles are awarded based on competence rather than arbitrary characteristics beyond a person’s control or unrelated to ability, such as racial/ethnic origin, religious identity, gender. Put another way: how is Korah’s claim against Moses and more particularly against Aaron and the concentration of the privileges of the priesthood in a single family (and its future male descendants), so different from the claims of Jewish women – or other marginalized groups in the Jewish community such as gays and lesbians? Must we simply accept the roles or limitations placed on us by birth, irrespective of our abilities or desires to serve God more fully?”
It is also very noteworthy that Korach is portrayed even more negatively in rabbinic literature than the biblical text reveals. The midrash relates that not only did Korach seek to oust Moses, but he also challenged the Torah by denigrating certain laws. He is depicted as deriding rabbinic authority and even of accusing Moses and Aaron of oppressing the poor. Commentators have attempted to bring proofs why Korah’s motives were base. Korach’s statement that “the community is holy, all of them” as opposed to the exhortation found throughout the book of Vayikra to “be holy,” is construed as a claim that the goal has been achieved and no further effort is required. Nehama Leibowitz suggests that Korach and his followers believed that the assignment of holiness would grant “superiority and privilege” rather than “extra duties and responsibilities.” Unlike Moses, and other subsequent prophets who were reluctant initially to answer God’s call, Korach is athirst, less for leadership and more for power. Rabbi Labovitz notes, “Personal self-aggrandizement, not a desire to serve God or the community, drove the rebellion.” She adds, “Jewish feminists, of course, are familiar with at least this last charge. As just one example, in 1976, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great halakhic scholars of the 20th century and a posek (legal decisor) still revered in and sometimes beyond the (Modern/Centrist) Orthodox community, wrote a teshuvah addressing the rise of feminism. He headed this work “Concerning the new movement of smug and (self-) important women,” and in it insinuated that any desire of women to be more involved in areas of Jewish life traditionally withheld from them “comes out of a rebellion against God and his Torah.” Women’s own testimony about their spiritual desires or motives – their desires to delve deeper into their religious identity, to embrace Torah learning, to serve the community, to come closer to God – is discounted, irrelevant, not trustworthy.” However, she brings a commentary by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, (19th century, Lithuania), who does recognize “positive spiritual longing” in Korach’s motives, citing from his work the Ha’amek Davar (translation taken from Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar): “The men who offered the firepans were not sinners but saintly persons, for whom the deprivation of priestly office spelt the forfeiting of a coveted opportunity for closer communion with the Creator. They harboured no illusory worldly ambitions, nor hankered after the sweets of office but longed to sanctify themselves and achieve greater spiritual heights through the sacred service.” However, Rabbi Labovitz continues that even if we accept this reading, how can we contend with the ultimate failure of Korach’s mutiny and the calamitous punishment that God inflicts? She says, “Can we take away any other message than that a challenge to the established order, no matter how arbitrary that order appears to be, no matter how well intentioned the challenge may be, is sinful and wrong, worthy of the harshest punishment?” And she answers, “Oddly enough, if there is an alternative to be found, I think we might find it among the very rabbis who inaugurated the midrashic tradition that first tried to interpret the complexities of this story. Not in their attempts to discredit Korah and his motives, and not in their own rulings that limited and restricted women’s equal participation in Jewish rite and ritual, but rather in their very existence. Rabbinic Judaism began and eventually flourished precisely by taking the place of other models of leadership that could no longer stand. Prophecy, the rabbis asserted, ended with the last of the biblical prophets. Kingship (considered an ambivalent form of leadership already in the Bible; see the haftarah this week) had become the province of the corrupt Hasmonean dynasty before being abolished under Roman rule. The Temple was no longer standing, depriving the Kohanim of the locus of their relevance and claim to leadership. In the place of these forms of privilege and leadership, the rabbis created a system that – though still not open to all – was far more open than anything that preceded it. Again and again, the rabbis tell stories of men who have no claim of birth yet come to prominence for their scholarship purely on the basis of merit and ability, despite coming from places of poverty (Hillel, Akiva), illiteracy (Akiva), and even criminal doings (Resh Lakish). Even so, it took hundreds of years for the views and ideals of the rabbinic movement of antiquity to become simply the Judaism that dominated most of subsequent Jewish history. May it be that with the fullness of time and always with the intent of dedicating ourselves more wholly to the service of God and the community, that the expanded ideals of leadership that we are developing today themselves become simply the Judaism of the future.”