Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Korach

This week’s Torah portion always troubles me. I understand the general consensus that Korach led an evil rebellion, and that he wrongfully threw accusations against Moses and Aaron about their alleged abuse of power. I get it; our tradition does not like Korach. I think he gets a bad rap. I find many loopholes in the argument touting his unsavory nature.

Korach was a Kohathite, the same status/tribe as was Aaron and Moses. He deserved to have a role in priestly decision making. Yes, I know that earlier texts spell out that Aaron and his offspring are the High Priests. I also know that were it so certain, there would have been no need for this test that God imposes on all of the contestants for High Priest. It would have been a “fait accompli,” and Korach would have earned immediate punishment for the blasphemy and insurrection.

God somehow needs to prove that God chose Aaron. The Rabbis use a phrase “Aen muchdam v’aen m’uchar” which translates, “There is no before or after.” Time is irrelevant, and so the fact that this story occurs in Numbers while the anointment of only Aaron happens in Exodus does not matter. This week’s text seems to prove who heads the Priesthood. Also, with this story, we have a firm statement as to who is “IN” and who is “NOT WELCOME IN.”

What troubles me most about this story? Well, first, Korach was right. His reward for being right was that the Earth opened a canyon and swallowed his family and entourage. Second, Korach was not only right then, he is right, now. We no longer recognize “A” High Priest. In most of the Jewish world, tribal status is irrelevant. Rabbis (not priests) are now responsible for everything ritual. These rabbis come from all places on the tribal path (or from even way outside tribal status). So, arguing that it is wrong to vest all power of God in one or two people is absolutely in vogue with what we feel to be truth in our age. There are a few fanatics who feel that theirs is the only answer, but by and large, we spread religious leadership amongst a much broader cross section of people and faith traditions. Despite the reality of denominationalism, there is great diversity respected in religious leadership.

The third concern that I have about this “Anti-Korach” sentiment is that tradition assumes that because he led a “rebellion,” he was a violent and evil man. I seem to remember learning that the American Revolution was a rebellion. It was violent and cost the fledgling colonies near 50,000 casualties ranging from death from war/disease or captivity to disabling battle wounds. Moses rebelled against Pharaoh, killing a guard. Martin Luther King rebelled against a racist White America; breaking the law and putting thousands of lives at risk (including his own).

We know that the overbearing weight of oppression causes violent responses. The pain felt by the oppressed speaks as much to the compassion and awareness of the institution being accused, as it does with the pain felt by the oppressed. When people ache, they are going to act out. If our behavior causes the ache, then we need to be prepared for the response. I am not suggesting that every rebellion is good or that everyone who hurts has a right to retribution. Righteous rebellions should never be necessary and the ones bent only on power mongering and destruction should never be given the opportunity. I am suggesting that we too easily accept or dismiss the end result of violence through only the myopic lens of how it fits into our personal agendas. When we are on the side of the rebellion, it is called “freedom fighting.” When it is against us, we call it criminal; whomever the “we” or “us” is. We pick and choose when to be offended/alarmed and when not to be. We even use and manipulate the violence that happens for our own agendas, irrespective of truth or who else gets hurt in the “crossfire.”

I am about to violate one of my own sacred rules. I abhor mixing politics and religion. What I am about to say is going to sound horribly political, but I am not calling out one party or the other, this screams out at those who do politicize other people’s trauma. People (who we look to for leadership) have opened themselves up for this with public statements that are unseemly and horrifying.

What happened in Charleston this week was a rebellion. It was one man, but it was endorsed and supported by an ever increasing white supremacist backing and a polarizing politic. Fox News argued that this was not about race, at all; it was about religious freedom … an attack on religion. Host Steve Doocy, said, “You made a great point … about the hostility toward Christians, and it was in a church, so maybe that’s what it was about.” Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum said, “You talk about the importance of prayer in this time, and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before.” NRA exec Charles Cotton blamed the church Pastor (also a State Senator) for the attack. Cotton stated, “[Pinckney] voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” The State Governor Nikki Haley exclaimed, “We do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” It’s called racism.

Maybe this is Korach’s crime. Maybe Korach, in his bid to become High Priest, was not asserting his legitimate right and entitlement. Perhaps his only goal was to demean Moses and Aaron for his self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, so impressed with himself, he led faithful followers who looked to him as a leader … to their deaths.

We need to pay attention for ourselves and not let people make our minds up for us. We need to hold each other accountable for our behaviors. The only things that stop oppression are our concern for each other’s well-being; our compassion for their perspective and plight; and our commitment to the honor of each other’s dignity. Where we act more in accordance with these truths, there will be fewer oppressed people who need to revolt, and fewer opportunities for those who seek to destroy to do so. I am sick over the shootings. I am in prayer for the families and the church. I am horrified at the response of people who claim to lead. I need a Shabbat Shalom.