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The Rebel Within: Korach

Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32


This week’s Torah portion retells the famous story of the rebellion of Korach. Korach challenges Moses and Aharon’s authority and their system of rule over the Hebrews. “All the community are holy, each and every one of them, and the Eternal is within them. Why, then, do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation? Rav Lachem! – You’ve gone too far!” [Num. 16:3]

Overwhelmingly, rabbinic commentaries over the centuries have sided with Moses against the “rebellious” Korach. Why? The reason is that Korach’s rebellion is ultimately repressed, he and his followers killed, and Moses wins out with the help of God. When God intervenes in a story, rabbis are often reluctant to take a position against God. And so, as rabbis have sought to unpack the text over the centuries, they have taken Moses’ word as the explanation for Korach’s intentions—namely, that he was power hungry, and a deeply divisive force with an unbounded ego. But one still wonders: weren’t these all Moses’ own projections? And why take his word as an explanation for Korach’s motivation? Why not take Korach’s word? Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of presiding over a dictatorial system of rule; and argues, instead, for a more democratic structure. But in an era when kings and priests were God-appointed leaders tracing their lineage back to Moses and Aaron, the biblical author —a scribe working either in the Temple or in the king’s court—wasn’t exactly free to write a story that would challenge the political system of the time. To do so would, at best, be a career-limiting move.

Nevertheless, the fact that this story remains included in Torah is, in and of itself, a powerful statement. Because Torah is the spiritual manifesto of our tradition, the inclusion of his rebellion is, I believe, a compelling spiritual message. Like the wandering tribes in Torah under Moses’ leadership, we, too, live within the context of a multi-layered system. This system serves us as individuals and supports our daily existence as communities and nations sharing one planet. Overwhelmingly, it is a positive force in our lives. Yet all multi-tiered systems have a dark shadow-side to them. Each historical layer is bent on self-perpetuation, preserving its power and, therefore, resistant to evolution. Its reason for being is to serve those who have created it in the first place, often fostering systemic divisions, fear and conflict (real or manufactured) as a means of self-preservation. The system in which we live, we are often reminded, is based, for example, on a deeply racist underpinning. Today, the white male majority—who created this foundational systemic layer with the birth of our nation—is slowly becoming a minority; and fear of seeing its power vanish is causing the white supremacist alt-right to rise, and battle lines to be drawn. Another example, remnant of the industrial era layer of power in our system, is the plundering of earth resources for profit at the expense of the very sustainability of our planet. So deep-seated is the greed connected to the rape of the earth, that our democracy itself is at risk of succumbing.

Systems’ dark sides left unchallenged can be extremely dangerous. We need a Korach at each level. Today, the voice of Korach would challenge the destructiveness of still-alive Industrialization Era practices that threaten life on earth. And Korach would also remind us that “All the community are holy,” that as we forward our own agenda, our own pluralistic inclusive values, we cannot exclude those who think differently, or share a different worldview. Like Korach, we need to see ourselves as perpetual challengers of power; questioners of an always evolving multi-dimensional system, especially at times when power turns into oppression, or becomes destructive and violent. This, I believe, is one of the spiritual messages embedded in the story of Korach’s rebellion; that we stand guard against the abuses of any system by obstinately giving voice to the rebel within. Long live our inner Korach!