By Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz
This is not an easy time to read about the rebellion of Korach.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach stages an uprising against Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach is part of the Levite tribe, who perform the more menial tasks of the sacrificial cult. However, they do not share the privileged role of the cohanim (priests), the descendants of Aaron.
His tribe gets, quite literally, all of the guts and none of the glory.
With 250 Israelites behind him, Korach confronts Moses: “You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Eternal” (Num. 16: 3).
Korach makes a fair point: If all of the people are holy, why is Moses the only one who can receive God’s word? If all of the people are holy, why can only the descendants of Aaron offer sacrifices to God?
Korach’s question is, in essence, a request for a more democratic way of doing things. Holiness for all! Equal access to our sacred spaces! These sound like causes that many of us might easily get behind today.
But that isn’t how things unfold for Korach and his followers. After a protracted debate with Moses, God causes the earth to open up and swallow Korach, his associates and their families. Then, as a punishment for the rebellion, God strikes the Israelites with a plague whose death toll is in the thousands.
In our current climate of protest and activism, how can we make meaning from a passage that condemns someone for speaking truth to power? How can we accept the punishment of one who demands equality when we are working so hard to achieve this today?
Clearly the ancient rabbis — who valued dissent and debate — had a similar problem with this text. It couldn’t be simply the demand for inclusion that led to Korach’s demise. There must have been more to Korach’s rebellion.
The ancient rabbis believed that Korach’s crime might have been sowing division in the community, trying to stage a violent coup, behaving out of jealousy or acting as a provocateur. Many modern commentators suggest that Korach’s crime was seeking power for its own sake, rather than out of a desire to serve the community and pursue the greater good.
But according to 20th century Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the problem lies not in Korach’s methods or his motives, but in his words.
At first glance, one might see Korach’s claim of universal holiness and his demand to democratize the priesthood as hearkening back to earlier biblical commandments to be holy. After all, God tells us that we “shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and commands us “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
But Korach and his followers, Leibowitz argues, are not striving to become holy. Rather, they are making the claim that they already are holy. He writes: “Korah’s demagoguery (is) exposed in his claim that ‘all the community ‘are’ holy,’ i.e. we have achieved our goal and nothing more need be demanded of us. The Torah’s position is that all the community is challenged to ‘become’ holy (Lev. 19:2). It is a future goal, not a present boast” (“Etz Chayim Torah Commentary 861”).
Similarly, today we cannot respond to the challenges we face in our world simply by celebrating what we have already achieved. Rather, our response must be defined by where we are trying to go, and what commitments we are willing to make to get there.
Shai Held writes: “The Torah forcefully challenges us to live lives of holiness … (and) warns us that holiness must remain a perpetual aspiration. To assume that it is an established fact about us rather than a charge put to us is to tread on dangerous ground” (“The Heart of Torah,” Volume 2, 140).
It is hard to read Korach as a modern Jew. But there is one part of the biblical story that I love. After the rebellion is quashed, the firepans of Korach’s band are melted down and made into copper plating for the altar. This is remarkable: something that was used to rebel against Moses and the priesthood is now a permanent part of the sacred shrine.
Including the firepans in the altar serves to remind us that our life as a nation is contingent on questioning accepted truths, facing the consequences of our actions, and learning from our mistakes.
Likewise, the missteps of our nation and its leadership are a part of us, as are the moments in which we rebelled against authority and fought for equality. This, too, has been, and will continue to be, an essential part of our nation’s sacred story.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, co-president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and author of the picture book “The World Needs Beautiful Things.” The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.