Traditionally, Parashat Korah is a popular portion for with those delivering sermons. Rashi’s opening commentary for this parasha is often misquoted to suggest that it must be read accompanied by a sermon. And why is it so popular? There are very clear lessons to be learned from it, concerning the role and meaning of leadership, social and political structure and can be easily re-read and re-interpreted in light of current events, be it ensuring the authority of existing social structures and power relations, looking at forthcoming elections, or as a warn to the congregation of the danger and the ‘wickedness’ that is at the root of rebellion. And not only is it easy to link this portion to social, political and moral contemporary issues, there is also a drama –
And what a drama!
Korah, a Levite, Datan, Aviram and On of the tribe of Rueben, along with two hundred and fifty of the elders of the people stand up to Moses and Aaron and question their leadership and the source of their authority over the people. Moses reacts to the challenge by staging a public display and setting out the rules by which God will decide and solve the dispute. He, rather than Korah, is asking God to offer a clear sign of who is the divinely-appointed leader. God agrees to this plan and tells Moses he will kill and punish the rebels and all those who follow them. Moses pleads for their lives and spares the wider community, but the instigators are punished in a most frightening and very public ‘execution’ when ‘the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods’ (Numbers 16.32).
But there are also many open and difficult questions – what is the sin for which Korah and his followers are so punished? How can the simple verbal suggestion of defiance give them the title of ‘wicked’?
Following God’s command, Moses beseeches the people of Israel to separate themselves from the rebels. He warns them: ‘Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away in all their sins’ (Numbers 16.26, my emphasis). The adjective used here is interesting. Whereas the adjective ‘wicked’ or the collective noun ‘wicked men’ appear often throughout the Bible, it very rarely refers to a particular, named, individual. Usually, the wicked is an abstract idea, the opposition of the righteous, referred to often in legal or moral teachings. In Exodus there is a reference to a wicked man, the violent murderer of another, and some disputes are also settled by declaring one side to be wicked and therefore guilty, however, these wicked are not named. But there is one interesting exception. In Exodus 9 we read about the plague of hail and once the damage is clear to Pharaoh he calls Moses to come before him. In an attempt to bring an end to his country’s suffering, Pharaoh addresses Moses and says: ‘I have sinned this time, the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.’ (Exodus 9.27-28).
Pharoah’s repentance is motivated by fear, and yet not only does he acknowledge his wickedness, he juxtaposes it with righteousness which is in God. Unlike Pharaoh, Korah sees God in himself and perhaps this is why his wickedness is so much greater.
In the very opening lines, Korah explains his objection to Moses’ governance over him and the rest of the people of Israel of Israel challenging Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them, wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ (Numbers 16.3) Moses immediate response seems to be a literal answer to the accusation, and rather than be ‘above the assembly,’ he falls upon his face. He is shocked, but also humbled, by this uprising and thus his gesture of humility also is a very literal reminder of his earthly being as he forms a lowly bond with the ground on which he now lies.
Avraham Burg is his book Very near to you: human readings of the Torah (translated by J. J. Goldberg, 2012) picks up on this unusual response to a very disturbing challenge, and he explains the difference between the holiness that Korah claims to have and that of Moses. In Parashat Kdoshim, in Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s promise to the people of Israel saying: ‘Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Leviticus, 19.2). Unlike Korah’s appropriation of holiness as a given, here it is only in potential. Moses and his leadership represent the recognition of God’s holiness and the aspiration for it. It is about striving and trying to get it, not about having it and building upon it.
Moses’ holiness is a holiness of perpetual Sisyphean striving to repair oneself and improve the world. It is a holiness that is acquired, not inbred. It is something that is never guaranteed. It requires constant self-criticism to prevent the believer from defiling the name of God the creator of the universe in whose image we were created.
Korah’s holiness, on the other hand, is not the democratic recognition in human agency and volition, but it is the basis for the self-proclaimed victors who have God in their camp, the religious and political fundamentalists. By saying ‘we’re all holy,’ Korah breaks the boundary between the human and the divine, and thus everything is permitted. This is not democracy, but anarchy, or a form of racial tyrannical oligarchy, whose authority does not derive from God, but rather denies the role of the deity.
If we consider Korah’s challenge not as a political one, but theologically, perhaps his punishment can be explained. He who claims to have brought the holiness of the heavens down to reside among all men, is reminded of the earthiness of mortal existence, of the total and complete difference between the ground and the heavens.
But rather than end of a tragic note, this unbridged gap, between the divine and the human, can also be a source of celebration, as we find in the Psalm for the sons of Korah, psalm 47. The Psalms suggests that Korah’s lineage continued, and we belong to it too as we read their celebratory Psalm on Rosh Hashana before blowing the Shofar whose sound we hope will cross this divide, come up from the land to reach the Heavens.
For the Leader; a Psalm for the sons of Korah.
O clap your hands, all ye peoples; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
For the LORD is most high, awful; a great King over all the earth.
He subdueth peoples under us, and nations under our feet.
He chooseth our inheritance for us, the pride of Jacob whom He loveth. Selah
God is gone up amidst shouting, the LORD amidst the sound of the horn.
Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises unto our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth; sing ye praises in a skilful song.
God reigneth over the nations; God sitteth upon His holy throne.
The princes of the peoples are gathered together, the people of the God of Abraham;
for unto God belong the shields of the earth; He is greatly exalted.