Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -Korach
This week, we met Korach, a Levite who is upset that Aaron and Moses have displaced the rest of the Levites and taken on all leadership roles for themselves. The whole tribe is supposed to share in the responsibilities at the altar and in ritual leadership. God seems to have ignored the Biblical instruction to the entire tribe of the Levites and picked favorites in Moses and Aaron. Korach challenges their authority. Joining him are two Reubenite rabble-rousers, Dathan and Abiram (and 250 other tribal chieftains).
God punishes the rebellion by opening the earth to swallow the offenders. A fire drew forth from the chasm to consume those who did not fall. Pretty serious penalty!
The problem is that the text is ambiguous. The text says that the offenders fell into the earth. Most sages concur that those who perished included Korach. Most all sages believe he died, having committed an offense against God and Moses. I, however, am not convinced that Korach was an offender.
Perhaps he had a righteous claim against God and Moses. After all, God will affirm Korach’s claim near the end of the portion (Num. 18:2). God sets aside all Levites as ritual leaders and specially chosen servants before God, not just Aaron and Moses. Despite the near uniform Rabbi understanding that Korach did evil for which he perished, Numbers 26:10-11 tell us that Korach’s lineage did not die off. Further, if we read ahead, we will find that Psalms 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87, and 88 all begin, “A Psalm from the sons of Korach.” The Psalms are sacred texts not to have been written by blasphemers – if Korach and his family perished, who are these authors?
Perhaps the offenders were all those who jumped on the rebellion cart for no reason save to seize power for themselves. Dathan and Abiram and the 250 chieftains had no legitimate “beef” to argue, they just chimed in for the sake of sowing discord.
Or, equally as plausible, perhaps we have failed in giving them credit for standing up for justice? Korach was right. They stood with him. They knew something was out of line and were condemned for speaking the truth.
Our sages may have committed a gross error in dismissing the entire rebellion as evil. Korach was right but condemned by people who don’t want us to pay attention. We pervert justice when we summarily dismiss truths that get in the way. Maybe the rabble who followed him also knew that the system was wrong?
My Rabbinic Thesis Advisor, the late Dr. Ellis Rivkin, believed that this story speaks to the change of authority from the First Temple to the Second. In the First, the entire tribe of Levites served as priests. In the Second, only Aaron’s lineal descendancy.
This text could easily be a social commentary, a protest against the way in which the rest of the Levites were stripped of their position in the Second Temple period. The text indicts the system that ignored Torah’s gift to the entire tribe, and further calls attention to the injustice done to people who stand up for truth.
While I am not suggesting that the commentators throughout history are wrong, I am saying that Scripture is not monolithic and absolute. Using the literal text to prove an ideal is, at best, dangerous. The purpose of Scripture is to create conversation, not to enforce truths – truth is found in the dialogue between people. The same words that spark condemnation of one party in a dispute can equally be used to condemn the other.
When we forget Scripture’s push to dialogue, when we proffer or ignore the text’s breadth of possibility, we diminish the value that the Bible has in helping us grow a society that thrives on honest discourse. Our tradition teaches “aelu v’aelu divrae Elohim Chayim – these words and these words (opposing sides) are both the words of the living God.” When we start a conversation with the presumption that our opponent is either stupid or evil, we open the door for the same to be felt about us. If we really want the world to change, our conversations have to begin with journeys to understand each other. We have to listen and learn before we know what we can accept or must reject. Ears and open heart first, or we become part of the madness.