This is a tough Torah portion. It’s the story of Korach, the man who led a revolt against Moses. He gathers 250 of the most important leaders and challenges Moses:
“You take too much upon yourself, Moses. Not just you, but all the congregation is holy, every one of us. Why do you raise yourself up above the congregation?” (Numbers 16:2-3).
What makes this portion so problematic is that it seems that Korach is right. After all, what is he asking for? Democracy? Equality? Empowerment? What could be wrong with that?
The backstory is that Moses has had a rough time; the Israelites believed the pessimistic assessment of the 10 spies who said that it would be impossible to conquer the land of Canaan. As a result, the entire people were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years, until they all died out and a new generation could enter the Promised Land. Moses loses patience. “Let God decide,” he says. The story ends with Korach and his supporters being swallowed up by the earth.
It is a cartoonish ending. All of Moses’ enemies suddenly and conveniently disappear. To be truthful, I have to admit I have had that fantasy once or twice. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the people who have challenged or criticized me were suddenly swallowed up and out of my life?
But seriously, what’s the message here? Is it that authority can never be challenged? Given the reality of politics in our world, this is a dangerous and, I would argue, not a very Jewish position. Is it instead that dissent in a religious community should be smashed? Also not a good lesson, particularly at this moment in history when we see so much abuse of power by religious leaders.
The question is even more problematic when you see how our tradition embellished the story. In the rabbinic tradition, Korach is a more dangerous figure than he seems to be in the biblical story. The midrash (rabbinic commentary) tells us that not only did Korach challenge Moses, he also challenged Torah by ridiculing laws that seem to be arbitrary and illogical. Why is it that a four-cornered blue cloth without tzitzit is not kosher but with four cords of blue it is? And why is chicken considered meat, and eggs considered pareve? The midrash views Korach mocking rabbinic authority and, worse, accusing Moses and Aaron of using their authority to impoverish poor people by requiring that they offer sacrifices and tzedakah. If this is the rabbis’ vision of Korach, no wonder he is considered the epitome of a threat!
Why did the rabbis create these stories about Korach? My friend Rabbi Janet Marder suggested a fascinating way to understand the rabbinic view of Korach. She argues that what the rabbis are doing here is projecting onto Korach all of their own doubts about the religious system that governs their lives.
Seeing Korach in this way suggests a very different way of looking at the story, a way that might be useful for all of us. Instead of seeing Moses and Korach as separate individuals fighting over power, what would happen if we see them as two sides of ourselves?
Think about it. Each of us is both Moses and Korach. The Moses in us is wise, visionary and trusting that there is a Promised Land: Moses represents our best self. The Korach inside us is our cynical, negative voice; the critical tape that keeps playing inside our heads. Korach is that dark side, the part of ourselves that undermines us and stands in our way of being the person we really want to become.
Rabbi Marder goes on to suggest that maybe the story isn’t about religious leadership at all. Maybe it is a spiritual challenge to each one of us to bury the Korach inside of us, the judgmental self that so often paralyzes us. Maybe we have to bury that part of ourselves so that the Moses in us can be free to continue the journey toward the Promised Land.
God says to Moses: “Remove yourself from Korach; turn aside utterly and repudiate him.” Maybe God is speaking to us as well. We, too, need to separate ourselves from our own Korach or else we could be dragged down into the pit with him. And for us it won’t be as easy as it was for Moses – no quick miracle that swallows those negative impulses. For us it takes a lifetime, and this story reminds us of the work each of us still has to do.
Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.