One of the most important teaching of the torah is v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, love your neighbour as yourself. There are no ifs, ands or buts. We are commanded to love all members of the fabulous human family. In the creation account of the Book of Genesis, God creates us betzelem elohim, in God’s image. That means that all of us, no matter our race, religion, gender, gender identity, nationality, economic status, disability, or sexual orientation are reflections of the Divine Being who created us all. Therefore, when we act with love and compassion towards one another, we become holy. However, holiness is not enough. Being holy means we become aware of our task, to fix this broken world. The biblical prophets urge us on with their words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
The past weeks have shown that we are far from reaching a just world and that each and every one of us is asked to not remain silent when violence against women is crippling our country, when people are still being judged and treated differently just because of their skin colour, and when members of the LGBT* community are discriminated because of their sexual orientation and/or identity.
Our rabbis teach that we can see a glimpse of the messianic time, a world in balance, each Shabbat. Why? Perhaps, then is when we know that it is worth fighting for.
The revolt in the Israelite camp reached its climax at a mass meeting of the rebels. The majority of the speakers were from the tribe of Reuben. In their so-far sharpest attack, the rebels questioned Moses and Aaron and held them guilty for unlawful appropriation of power and severe mismanagement. They called for an immediate return of the people to Egypt and warned clearly that under the continued leadership of Moses the people of Israel would be led into disaster. Among the rebels was the singer songwriter Korach from the tribe of Levy, who became
famous for writing many psalms which we still recite.
Korach and his supporters, who took part in the rebellion against Moses, died in a tragic manner. In front of thousands of people, who watched terrified, they sank into the ground, as a rift broke up and dragged them into the depth.
But why the punishment? Does not everyone in a just society have the right to express their opinion? The rebels had claimed that the whole people of Israel are holy. Which indeed is hugely different to what Moses and the Torah tried to teach: It is not about what we are, but what we can become — one should strive to become holy, one should strive to be a moral and religious people. The Torah presents some guidelines to help with this. The rebels had sharply attacked this teaching and had proclaimed, the whole people of Israel as it is, is holy. They understood holy as being special, with no need for guidance in any matters.
Holiness is not granted as a birth right to us, but as a gift, rewarding us for bringing healing—Tikun Olam—into the world.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Annette Böckler)
Destruction of Korah Dathan and Abiram (illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible)
Only five Torah portions derive their titles from the names of individuals. These five portions are Koach, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas. Three of them are in Numbers, a book that heightens the trials of the Israelites with micro-narratives in the midst of the great historical trek toward mature freedom and the continued attachment of moral demands to the Israelites’ story. And each of these portions represents a figure whose role in the creation of the nation Israel is quite revolutionary. Each of these figures engage in behaviour that was groundbreaking, and (even in the case of Korach) essential for the development of the Jewish nation. Two of them are rebels whose plots were foiled (Korach and Balak), two of them make the world better for the Jewish people (Pinchas and Jethro), and one of them is designated to save the world. That role went to Noach, the righteous one of his generation.
Korach is clearly a bad guy, as he rebels against the one clear, pure leader of the Jewish people; there is no doubt about history’s judgment of Korach. But the story becomes more important than its simple moral message when we reflect on the leader whom Korach opposes. Moshe, called in innocence to lead the people and flawed by his own physical imperfections and temper, emerges within the larger biblical story as tragic, incomplete, and monumental to the human challenge of leadership. Sometimes those who oppose him or his values are judged, and at other times (as with Zelophehad’s daughters, who influenced change in inheritance law), the rebels guide him in new directions.
Other challenges to authority have better results for the challengers. For example, in I Samuel, the people complain to the prophet that they are tired of his leadership and want a king. In that instance, God urges Samuel’s compliance. Samuel, like Moses, becomes defensive, asking: Have I taken anything from the people? Have I benefited from this awful leadership task? Jethro challenges Moses’ ability to judge all the people and warns him that eventually he will wear himself out. Moses heeds this challenge as well. A linguistic note is worth mentioning here: Korach accuses Moses and Aaron with the phrase rav lachem (you have gone too far [Numbers 16:3]), while Jethro warns his son-in-law with the phrase ki chaveid mimcha hadavar (for the task is too heavy for you [Exodus 18:18]). The differing approaches of Korach and Jethro demonstrate how we can respond with either jealousy or concern.
Parashat Korach provides us with a unique opportunity to examine the entire concept of challenging authority-a value that Reform Judaism prizes -and to do a little soul searching about how we react to strong leaders. We may not celebrate Korach’s arrogance, but we can certainly celebrate the acknowledgment of the dark side of leadership and follower-ship.