by Rabbi James Greene,
Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center
, Los Gatos, CA
Our tradition gives Korah a bad rap. The rabbis tell a story of right and wrong, black and white, good versus evil, Moses against Korah. They see a narrative where Moses is defending God’s rule. But I prefer to tell it differently. For me, the story of Korah is the story of a man questioning the structure of the priestly system. He approaches Moses to find out why the system of priestly superiority exists: “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohat son of Levi, betook himself, along with Datan and Abiram sons of Eliav, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16: 1–3).
For me, the key word here is “all of them,” all of the community is holy. Korah is not saying that he alone is the rightful leader of the Israelites, only that perhaps we should consider a more democratic structure. It appears on its face to be a valid question – perhaps one that many of ourselves would have asked Moses given the opportunity. And yet Moses’ response is one of distain and denial. He sends for Korah, Datan, and Abiram, and announces that God will make the final decision about who is right or wrong. In the end, Moses wins. Korah and his followers are swallowed up by the earth and the Israelites continue on their journey.
Although almost all the rabbis argue in Moses’ favor, one teacher from our tradition, Rabbi Simhah Bunim makes a wonderful observation about Moses’ behavior. He argues that, “Moses failed to bring peace to the Israelites during this, his greatest challenge, because he did not bother to go to them and try to appease them. Instead, he waited in his tent and sent to have them brought to him” (Iturei Torah, Parshat Korah). Moses misses the mark in his leadership by making demands rather than making peace.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, a contemporary rabbi, writing in
Growth Through Torah
(pg. 340) notes that, “when involved in a personal quarrel, do not focus on who is right and who is wrong, but focus on peace. Ask yourself, ‘What can be said or done so that all the people involved can be satisfied?’” Moses does not ask this question. When he hears Korah’s complaints, he falls on his face. Rather than answer the concerns of some in the Israelite leadership, Moses buries his head in the sand and bemoans his own sense of persecution. He misses the person in the midst of the struggle, and in doing so loses the opportunity to have an I-Thou exchange with Korah, settling instead for objectifying him as a nuisance that needs to be dealt with. He is not able to respond to Korah by asking, either internally or aloud, how he could bring peace to the situation.
But Moses alone is not to blame for the great misunderstanding in this week’s portion. Korah too fails to understand Moses’ role as a sacred leader. Rather than build the community up, Korah’s rebellious voice only digs a hole in the ground. That metaphoric hole eventually opens up and swallows Korah and his followers. He, like Moses, missed the opportunity to be a builder of community – his failure to question with the intent of building leads to the awful ending of our portion.
Part of the gift of progressive Judaism is the ability to question in a sacred way. But with that questioning comes a sacred responsibility: to question in such a way that we are builders of our community. As we seek to better understand our tradition and the texts our ancestors left for us, we are obligated to look for paths which link us together and bind us to the God-searching of our ancestors. Progressive Judaism encourages us to ask tough questions in order to better understand the nature of God, our role in the world, and the continual evolution of Judaism. But we would also be wise to learn from this portion and not make the same mistake as Moses and Korah. If, as my teacher Rabbi Richard Hirsh once argued during a class, Judaism evolves from the people up and not the mountain down, then we must be open to questions however they come to us.