This week we will be reading from Parashat Korah. Korah son of Izhar, a descendant of Levi, joined with Dathan, Aviram, 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 Korah’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] dwelled in their midst, so why should there be 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
To put it another way, Korah 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, Korah was arguing that he should be the new choice to lead the Israelites. Of course, God did not buy this argument, and so Korah sealed his fate.
As the nature of the pandemic is slowly changing, thankfully for the better, we are nonetheless still wrestling with our understanding of the underlying concepts of freedom. Does freedom mean each and every person can do whatever they want? Can we just choose not to wear a mask or engage in physical distancing because that is what it means to be free? Or is there a greater sense of communal responsibility demanded upon us to help protect ourselves, our loved ones, and complete strangers?
As we work on reopening for gathering again for worship beginning in July, we at RTR are wrestling with these same questions. For example, we want each of you to be able to join us, however you wish, but at the same time, work to keep our community as safe as possible. This means some of our practices and procedures may be a little behind where other organizations and businesses are at this time. It is not because we want to make it more challenging, but instead is reflective of the notion that as a religious community we answer to a higher authority.
In Judaism, freedom and obligations (mitzvot) are inexorably intertwined. Korah could not see this nor understand it, whereas it was clear to Moses. Building a community and sustaining a community are a combination of both freedoms and obligations. In times like these, we are reminded how we are all in this sacred journey together as a people, as a nation, and as human beings and that to be truly free means we also have to work to protect each other and keep each other safe. To do any less, would be a rebellion against God.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
1 Plaut, Gunther, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, URJ Press, 2006, pg. 1001.