Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rebelling for the Right Reasons: Parashat Korach

The story of Korach as told by Rabbi (and JTS classmate) Yael Buechler through her  parasha -inspired manicure.  You can check out more of these awesome illustrations on her website!
Freedom and Dissent -- two of the corner stones of the Jewish experience, right?  We are the descendants of the idol breakers, the people redeemed from slavery, who fought arbitrary power and won.  All of these things are true and have inspired generations of Jews to fight on the front lines for the cause of justice.  However, in this week's portion, parashat Korach, we learn that dissent is not an unmitigated good.  Sometimes, if done in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, making trouble displeases God greatly.  In the case of Korach and his followers who challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron, God punishes them for their sin by having the earth swallow them whole.    Why were they consumed if ostensibly all they wanted was equality?
There are a variety of ways to read the complicated, and often opaque biography of Korah, and a multiplicity of lessons we can draw from his legacy.  The first lesson that I would take away from this story is one about how and why we organize.  It appears in chapter 16:3, that we are presented with a model of organizing that is praiseworthy, “ויקהלו על משה ועל אהרון ויאמרו אלהם רב לכם כי כל העדה כלם קדושים ובתוכם ה' ומדוע התנשאו על קהל ה'.”  Literally, this verse begins that Korach and his supporters v’yikahalu, created a community! to challenge Moses and Aaron.  Korach and his allies highlighted the fact that all of the nation was holy and imbued with God’s presence.  We see a spirit of egalitarianism, railing against what appears to be arbitrary power, and contesting the elitism of a priestly class.  Speaking on behalf of the entire nation, they underscore the merits of ha’eidah kulam, everyone in am Yisrael.  But as we read further, it appears that this egalitarian spirit may be nothing more than lip service.  In 16:6, we come across the phrase korach v’adato, Korach, and his eidah.  It appears that he has created an eidah, a community, separate from the rest of the nation.  Indeed, in the Aramaic translation of the Bible, this analysis of Korach’s motivation is read into the beginning of the portion.  In 16:1, Onkolus translates v’yikach korach, and Korach took, as v’etpaleg korach, and Korach separated himself.  This indictment could not be more clearly articulated than by Moses himself who, angry and exasperated, asks Korah, “המעת מכם כהבדיל אלוקי ישראל אתכם מעדת ישראל?”  Is it not enough that God has distinguished you from the rest of the people Israel?  “What more do you want?” Moses asks – how special do you want to be?  Essentially, Moses and Aaron are calling out Korach, identifying his true colors.  Whether or not Korach’s ambitions were initially righteous, throughout the portion he increasingly separates himself from the community – seeking glory instead of justice.  
The Torah teaches us something critically important about activism.  Challenging authority for its own sake is not a good.  Some authorities are legitimate and needed to service and guide a functional society.  Moses was a deeply humble man, and along with this brother and sister, carried out the direct will of God.  When Moses challenged Pharaoh, he did so because his rule was illegitimate, cruel, and dehumanizing.  He ignored God's will and the universal codes of decent human behavior.  Even though Korach used the language of justice and equality like Moses, his separation from the community evidenced his true motives: power.  He did not like following directions and submitting to an external power, even one that was deeply good and self-effacing.  
Sometimes when we seek to rebel and challenge we cannot tell whether we are following in the footsteps of Moses or Korach.  Are we truly humble?  Is justice our true motive?  I think we need to check in with those around us to keep us on the right track.  If we are not selective and savvy about how and when we rebel, our voice can lose its power and authority.  We must choose wisely, look to our tradition for guidance on the proper way to express ourselves, and push effectively against societal wrongs for the sake of the greater community and not just ourselves.


Shabbat Shalom from Waterville -- next week in Jerusalem!