Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite named Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron. As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies. The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels. The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again.
By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history. But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last. In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved at the point of a spear. And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in Shlach L’cha. Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly becoming dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things. Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and received the lion’s share of the hostility.
That tendency has remained a particularly Jewish one throughout our long history. While we joke about the stereotype of two Jews having three opinions, the truth is that our ancient heritage is a contentious one. If we weren’t rebelling against God and Moses we were fighting for control of the monarchy or against Philistines, Babylonians, Greeks, or Romans. And when actual armed insurrection was beyond us we engaged in intellectual debates so intense they bordered on warfare: from the endless, detailed Talmudic arguments to the political infighting of the Zionists to the Jewish socialists against the Jewish communists against the Jewish anarchists there is a long and rich and highly developed tradition of Korach-ism.
Since Korach is considered to be the worst of all of these, I wondered if there is any clue in the Hebrew of his name. The Hebrew root, Korach, has a few other meanings. One is to cut or shear things, to slice, and certainly rebellion is intended as a cutting gesture. Another meaning of Kuf reish chet is ice or cold, like Kerach—to chill or freeze, again a kind of reflection of emotional distance and hostility. Put those together, to cut and to make cold and you come up with… well, cold cuts. Very Jewish.
My favorite korach translation is the meaning baldness, Karei’ach; this seems to indicate that a lack of hair is potentially untrustworthy… my apologies, on behalf of the Hebrew language, to all bald people who rightfully resent this assertion. In defense, I must say that some of my best friends are bald. And there is nothing implied here about hairpieces to remedy the baldness also implying a rebellious nature.
Midrash provides another kind of clue. By rabbinic tradition Korach is considered to have been a very wealthy man, a kind of Jewish Croesus, the Rothschild, the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos of the Sinai Desert Israelites. There is a Hebrew slang term, otzrot Korach, the treasures of Korach, which basically means someone is filthy rich. Somehow Korach’s wealth is associated with the tendency to revel in rebellion, a willingness to say and do anything, regardless of truth or decency, because money can insulate him from the consequences of his statements and actions.
Let’s see now: rebellion against God’s appointed leaders comes from a coldness of heart and a desire to cut, reflects a paucity of the insulating calm of hair and is inflamed by the financial means to support a truly dangerous rebellion. I’m not sure that our little Hebrew excursion has provided us with particularly useful insights.
One thing, however, does emerge from Korach: the plain truth that leading the Jews has never been an easy task—important, rewarding, ethically essential, but never, ever easy. If it is true that shver tzu zain a Yid, it’s hard to be a Jew, it is even harder to be a Jewish leader. And so I wonder: why would intelligent, caring, reasonable Jews wish to take on this responsibility? What is there about the opportunity to make this commitment that attracts talented people with other things to do in life to spend time and effort in this contentious arena? Why would someone wish to engage in the constant give and take, the automatic Jewish flow of criticism and critique that aims itself at any and every leader of substance and integrity?
Perhaps the answer is also to be found in our Torah portion. Not so much in the desire to see your enemies swallowed up whole by the earth before everyone’s eyes, although that is an attraction. No, it is in the understanding, as the defeat of Korach ultimately confirms, that while everyone is holy in this community of priests, legitimate, principled, selfless, honest leadership with integrity is also absolutely necessary for us to achieve that holiness collectively. We need direction, and organization, and the practical details of everyday functionality to be taken care of so that we can grow spiritually.
What distinguishes Moses from those who rebel against him, like Korach, is his humble desire to do God’s will, and to further the cause of oneness and sanctity in this world. What he teaches us is that conflicts are not the goal—it is what happens after the resolution of conflict that defines us, and our value in this world.
May the Holy One bless us all with the wisdom to know that our path lies not with Korach, but with Moses, and thus with God.
Join us for Chardonnay Shabbat this Friday night: wine, cheese and fruit pre-Oneg at 5 PM, upbeat, cool Chardonnay Shabbat services at 5:45 PM.
And celebrate Havdallah with us at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum event this Saturday, June 24th at 5 PM—admission free for the first 50 people!—no-host dinner, then songs, stories and Havdallah with me, followed by evening tours of this treasure of Tucson.