D’var Torah for July 5, 2019

This week, we will be reading from Parashat Korach. Parashat Korach tells us the story of Korach\’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
Due to the vagaries of history over the past two thousand years, Jews have never really been regarded as a revolting people (pun intended). For the most part we have lived under both the generosity and subjugation of local rulers and governments. However, this is not to say that we do not have a history of actively engaging in revolts against rulers in our history.
For example, there was the Hasmonean revolt against the Selucid Greeks (167-160 B.C.E), whose victories we celebrate every Chanukah. There was the revolt against Rome starting in 66 C.E., whose tragic loss we commemorate at Masada and on Tisha B’Av. There was also the second failed revolt against Rome by Bar Kochba (132-136 C.E.) which we also commemorate on Tisha B’Av.
However, the first revolt in our recorded history was an internal one by one Levite against another. This week we will be reading from Parashat Korach. Korach son of Izhar, a descendant of Levi, joined with Dathan, Abiram, and On, along with two hundred and fifty other leaders, called out Moses and Aaron. They called into question Moses and Aaron’s legitimate right to lead the Israelites.
As is stated in the Plaut Torah Commentary, it was “the most serious rebellion that challenged God’s chosen leaders during the forty years of wanderings through the wilderness … Like other uprisings, it ends in failure. God comes to the aid of Moses and Aaron and destroys their opponents dramatically: some are literally swallowed by the earth, others are burned, and still others are struck by a plague.”[1]
The facts are clear, but there are lingering questions. What the Torah does not tell us is whether or not there was any legitimacy to Korach’s argument. As interpreted by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, \”Both Moses and Korah desired the people to be the people of YHVH, the holy people. But for Moses this was the goal. In order to reach it, generation after generation had to choose again and again . . . . For Korah the people, as being the people of YHVH, were already holy. They had been chosen by God and [God] dwell in their midst, so why should there by further need of ways and choice? The people was holy just as it was, and all those within it were holy just as they were\” (Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant [New York: Harper & Row, 1958], p. 189). The conflict between Moses and Korah was not one of personality or the centralization of spiritual authority: rather, it was the inability of Korah to imagine that he (and the community) still needed to spiritually grow for, \”not being but becoming is [our] task . . . . \” and although the \”realization of the divine on earth. . . has its beginning in the life of [the] individual, it is consummated only in the life of true community\” (The Way of Response, p. 162).”[2] Or to put it another way, Korach is arguing that there is no need for leadership since the people are now inherently holy, so they should be free to follow whomever they wish. In this case, Korach was arguing that he should be the new choice to lead the Israelites. Of course, God did not buy this argument, and so Korach sealed his fate.
As we have just celebrated our nation’s Independence Day, it is interesting to note that we are still wrestling with our understanding of the underlying concepts of freedom. Does freedom mean each and every person can do whatever they want? Or is there a greater sense of communal responsibility demanded upon us to help elevate not just ourselves but everyone? Or is freedom somewhere in between. Perhaps we need a new paradigm where freedom is viewed not just as a vehicle towards the individual goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But maybe this reading of Korach’s rebellion can also remind us that the heart of any rebellion should also lead us towards the communal goal of a greater pursuit of holiness as well.
And as a random aside, General George Washington was inspired by the military tactics of the Hasmoneans when he engaged in battle with British forces. So not only did Jews fight and financially support (e.g. Haym Salomon) the Revolutionary War, but we also helped to inspire its victory.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy (belated) 4th of July!
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
[1] Plaut, Gunther, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, URJ Press, 2006, pg. 1001.