This week’s Torah portion, Korach, always ignites a spark of rebellion within me. It’s a dramatic story, filled with internal community conflict, a desperate need for personal affirmation, and a theatrical and pyrotechnic culmination. In this blockbuster of a parasha, Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and 250 of their followers challenge Moses and Aaron saying, “all the community is holy! Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation?”
The way I see it, the rebellion of Korach is a fight that has existed in humanity throughout the ages. It is a fight of power, purpose, and role in society. Moses and Aaron, under the instruction of God, have set up a hierarchical society for the Israelites, with the two of them at the top. Korach, despite being born into a life of privilege as a member of the tribe of Levi – the tribe specifically tasked with rituals of the Temple and service to God, sees Moses and Aaron as holding too much power. He claims that there is no one Israelite more holy than the rest, that Moses and Aaron have wronged in their accumulation of power and influence within the community, that their service to God should not condone their elevated separation from the “Average Joes.”
You can probably tell where I’m going with this. Like I said, the story of Korach sparks rebellion within in me, and that’s because I actually agree with Korach. I agree with an attempt to redistribute power and wealth more equitably. I agree with an individual feeling empowered to speak their truth to power. I agree that each and every person is holy, and no one person is more holy than another. I agree with Korach.
In the rest of the parasha, it becomes clear that Korach’s rebellion is not a successful one. Meaning, my agreeing with Korach, means I’m disagreeing with Torah. You might think this is an odd position for a rabbi to be in – inspired to go against the teachings of Torah, continuing the contrary message of a failed rebel. But hear me out.
Not only does Korach seem to be an excellent community organizer, not only does he have a powerful message to rally around, but he also seems to know how to work a system for the sake of positive change. He doesn’t go to Moses and argue until he’s blue in the face. He doesn’t challenge Aaron to a duel. He states his claim and allows the challenge to be brought to the ultimate mediator of disagreement – God. Korach, and his band of followers, bring their firepans before God, and accept that whichever pan God chooses, is the winner of the dispute.
Ultimately, God judges in favor of Moses and Aaron, and Korach, Dathan and Abiram are swallowed alive by the earth, everyone else consumed by fire. The rebellion meets a quick end, only lasting one chapter. But unlike the rebels themselves, their firepans are repurposed to become parts of the alter, to become integral parts of continued sacred service. The tools that Korach used for rebellion now become tools of worship, tools that form the foundation of Israelite community, tools that serve that sacred component which Korach saw in his kin.
Not every rebellion wins, despite our tendency to root for underdogs. And not every rebellion would change things for the better. But the remnant of Korach’s rebellion serves as a lesson to all the would-be rebels that follow. Success doesn’t always need to be measured in the absolute terms of the victory of one side over another. Success could be measured through the betterment of the community through the tools that you’ve given them through your example. Success could be measured by every miniscule change to the ideals that we hold central to our society. Success could be measured by the inspiration to rebel for the sake of holiness over pettiness.
So, no, Korach didn’t win. But Korach did make a huge contribution to what it means to be in conversation and relationship with God and our fellow human beings. We don’t always serve the greater good by accepting what’s given to us. Sometimes service looks like rebellion. Sometimes service looks like failure. Sometimes service looks like speaking up, even if those whom you are speaking to disagree.
So, yes. Thanks to Korach’s example I will happily rebel and become an occasional disciple of Korach. We’ll see what it adds to the conversation.
- Shabbat Vaetchanan - July 24, 2018
- Shabbat Korach - June 12, 2018
- Shabbat Bechukotai - May 8, 2018
- Shabbat Sh’mini - April 4, 2018
- Shabbat Tetzaveh - February 20, 2018
- Shabbat B’shalach - January 25, 2018
- Shabbat Vayigash - December 19, 2017
- Shabbat Toldot - November 14, 2017
- Shabbat Bereshit - October 10, 2017
- Shabbat Across Jeremiah D’var - September 7, 2017