I want to sing the song of Korach, that rebel of all rebels who opposed Moses and was punished with fire from God and swallowed up by the earth. I want to remember him with some fondness and remember that we all have a little Korach in us. It is a spirit that we need to develop and nurture lovingly.
Korach appears in this week's Torah portion (which is named, appropriately, Korach) as a member of the tribe of Levi who complained about Moses' leadership. Accompanied by 250 prominent Israelites, Korach told Moses and Aaron, "You have gone too far, for all of the community — all of them! — are holy and Adonai is in their midst. So, why should you elevate yourselves over the community of Adonai!" (Numbers 16:3).
You have to admit, it's a powerful argument. It is even a democratic argument.
Korach held that there was no good reason why Moses and Aaron alone should be in charge of the whole Israelite community — dictating the laws, deciding how they would be enforced, and appointing the heads of each tribe and clan. Korach held that it was wrong for Moses to assume the exclusive right to decree God's will. Korach declared that God was not the exclusive possession of any one person — no matter how wise or pious — and that each Israelite should be recognized as having his or her own sacred relationship with God.
Moses appeared to see the virtue of the argument, too. The first thing he did when he heard Korach's charge was to fall to the ground with his face down. In the culture of the Ancient Near East, that gesture had a clearly understood meaning. Falling on ones face was an acknowledgment of another person's superiority and a sign of humility. Moses understood that he was being chastised for a personal failing he had known about for a long time.
Before the Israelites had even received the Ten Commandments, Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, had warned Moses about his tendency to accumulate power to himself. He told Moses, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit alone and make the people stand before you from morning to night? … What you are doing is no good. You are going to wear yourself out and this people along with you, for this responsibility is too heavy for you to bear alone" (Exodus 18:14,17-18). Moses was something of a control freak, to put it in modern parlance, and Korach was calling him on it. Moses needed to let go.
But before we psychoanalyze Moses' need to control things, let's look at Korach. What kind of personality might we attribute to a person who recognizes when an authority figure has gone too far? What could we say about someone who challenges power run amok? We could say that Korach himself was power hungry and he used Moses' personality flaw as a point of leverage to attack him and to attract other Israelites to follow him. That is possible. It is also possible that Korach had a strong sense of fair play and the courage to stand up against injustice — even against a very powerful foe.
Who would you be rooting for in this narrative if it were happening today? Would you side with the man who says he uniquely speaks for God and has the unilateral authority to set laws over you? Or, would you root for the man who challenges the established order and declares that power should be shared by all?
Unlike James Dean's character in Hollywood's Rebel Without a Cause, Korach is a rebel with a cause. Korach does not fight aimlessly against a meaningless universe. Oh, no. Korach's cause is either to aggrandize himself, or it is to affirm the divinity within everyone. Either way, he believes in something. He believes that there is a need for order that is different from the current order.
That is a spirit to be nurtured. We need people who passionately want to change the world.
Jewish tradition teaches that the way the world is right now is not the way that God intends it to be. We are living in a broken world, either because of a cosmic catastrophe (as Lurianic Kabbalah teaches), because the link between heaven and earth was broken by the destruction of the Temple, or simply because error and sin are the nature of imperfect human beings. The world is in need of repair, tikkun olam, and human beings are needed to make it right.
Yet, the story of Korach shows that having a passion for change is not enough. Korach may have started out with the right idea, but it got twisted at some point that made him more of a threat to the world than a solution to its problems. We can actually find that moment right in the story.
Moses challenged Korach and his followers to an odd cosmic duel. Moses tested Korach's assumption that all the Israelites were equals before God. He told Korach, "You and all of your followers will be before Adonai tomorrow — you, they and Aaron. Each of you will take his firepan and place incense upon it and offer it before Adonai" (Numbers 16:16-17). It was as if Moses challenged Korach by saying, "If you think that you deserve the privilege of serving God as much as Aaron, the High Priest, then let's see what God thinks of your offering compared to his."
Korach didn't notice the paradox of Moses' challenge. He did not see that being a leader should not be about having special privileges; it should be about having the humility to serve selflessly. Moses offered the bait and Korach swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Korach took the firepan that belonged to someone else and was burned when "fire went out from Adonai and ate up the 250 men offering the incense" (Numbers 16:35). The burning bodies of Korach and his followers, according to rabbinic interpretation, were also among those that were buried when "The ground gaped open beneath them and the earth's mouth opened and swallowed them" (Numbers 16:31-32).
Korach had been at his best when he declared that his rebellion against Moses was not about himself. He had said, "All of the community — all of them! — are holy." Now, however, it was Moses' turn to recognize Korach's personality flaw and use it against him. If Korach had answered the challenge differently, the story would have ended differently. If he had said, "No, Moses. It is not for me to take up God's offering, or even for my 250 followers to do so. It is the right of every Israelite, for they are all members of a nation of priests," then he would have had a strong moral basis to continue his challenge.
But he didn't. Korach's ego was too invested in everything he did. He may have been sincere about wanting to create a more democratic and just society, but Moses demonstrated that Korach also really wanted power for himself. The greatest distinction between the personality of Korach and the personality of Moses is that, when challenged, Moses threw himself to the ground in humble admission of his flaws. Korach, in contrast, lifted his ego up and claimed the right to assume the highest honor.
Korach saw something that was truly wrong — even Moses knew that it was wrong — and he wanted to do something about it. So, let us sing some praises for Korach! Let us recognize that there is a part of us also that does not just want to complain about injustice of the world, but actually wants to change it. We need more people like that … but only up to a point.
The spirit of defiance needs to be carefully tempered with humility. We need to develop the courage within ourselves to fight for what is right, but we need to kindle and build that fire with great awareness of the ways in which it can burn us. We know too well how easily righteousness can become self-righteous. We know that successful crusaders for justice, once they have become powerful themselves, can turn into leaders who are even more cruel than the tyrants they overthrew.
That is why Korach met his fate of fire and earth. It was not because his ideas of justice and equality were wrong; it was because he could not get out of the way of his own ego. When he was offered the opportunity to step aside from power, he could not do it. As flawed a leader as Moses might have been — and we are all flawed — Korach would have been far worse. The fire for change that burned within him was also the fire of selfish greed. To make that clear, he had to be burned by the fire of heaven and he had to be humbled by being devoured into the mouth of the earth.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Vayikra: The Joy of Contrition
Va'eira: Playing God?
Beha'alotecha: Eldad and Medad