June 25, 1998
Parashat Korach (Numbers 16-18)
The True Meaning of Freedom
By Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
They're coming! The fireworks, the concerts and the barbecues are all happily bearing down upon us as the Fourth of July approaches again. Instinctively, and appropriately, we will soon be reflecting on the nobility of the human struggle for freedom and self-determination, and our hearts will again be stirred by the accounts of the brave and determined patriots who created the nation whose name is synonymous with freedom and liberty.
As a fitting lead-up to the Fourth, we present in this week's parasha the son of Yitzhar, Korach -- the tireless biblical fighter against the tyranny of arbitrary and oppressive government, the champion of God-given individual freedom, the Thomas Paine of his day.
In a fascinating rabbinic interpretation of the parasha, Korach -- the very one who is swallowed up by the Earth for his treacherous rebellion against the leadership of Moses -- presents himself in precisely this way. He appeals to the Israelite desert masses by decrying the virtual elimination of individual freedoms and dignity under the crushing burden of the Mosaic legislation. Moses is nothing more than a petty tyrant who falsely wraps himself in the cloak of religion, Korach tells the people. In joining Korach's rebellion, we would be advancing the cause of liberty.
The following, according to this rabbinic interpretation, was one of Korach's typical stump speeches:
"Did you hear the story about the poor widow?" he would begin, at once securing people's attention as well as their sympathy. "She was hoping to eke out a meager living for herself and her two daughters by working the small plot of land that she owned. When it came time to plow the land, Moses approached and declared, 'Thou shall not plow with an ox and ass together.' And when it came time to sow, Moses said to her, 'Thou shall not sow your field with mixed seeds.' And when it came time to harvest, he instructed her, 'Thou shall leave the corners and the gleanings for the poor, and give tithes to the "cohen" and the levi.'"
On and on Korach would continue with the story, which climaxed with Moses legislating and regulating the woman and her daughters into a state of utter despair. Moses the tyrant. Korach the liberator, complete with fife and drums.
In truth, though, can we not sympathize with the woman in Korach's story? Is not Korach accurate in portraying his struggle against Moses as the struggle for freedom and the right of self-determination? And, in a larger sense, isn't it so that the Torah is, in fact, a severely restrictive code of law -- one that seems to place little value on human freedom and liberty? Is the Fourth of July anathema to Jewish thinking?
The response to these questions, of course, revolves around what it is that we mean by the term "freedom."
The presumption of the sages of the Mishna is that the only person who is truly free is the one who assumes the "yoke of Torah."
Their premise appears to be that by virtue of our humanness, we are all -- to some extent -- born enslaved. We are born enslaved to our primal instincts and to our drive to obtain material possessions. We are driven by a survival instinct that can so easily lead us into a life that is self-centered, self-absorbed and completely lacking in concern for the needs of others.
This is what human enslavement looks like, according to our sages.
To be free, we need to be liberated from the impulses that are our chains. We need a Torah that will wean us away from the impulses to eat anything that we see, to mate with anyone who is available, to keep for ourselves anything that passes into our possession. The laws, which Moses taught in the name of God -- including those that he related to the widow in Korach's fictional story -- are the limitations that free us, the restrictions that liberate us. The freedom to self-actualize as a being created in the image of God is actually granted through the assumption of the yoke of Torah. And, by the way, it is a worthwhile exercise to note the extraordinary measures of protection that the Torah legislates for the widow.
These, too, help to liberate us from our baser instincts.
So fire up the barbecue, unfurl the Stars and Stripes, and thank God that we live in this blessed country. And thank God as well for having sent us Moses our teacher, and for having made us free.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles.
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