On the fourth day in the story of the creation back in the Book of Genesis, we are faced with a conflict. It says (1:16): “Gd made the two great lights” and immediately after, “the big light to dominate the day and the small light to dominate the night”… so, were there two great lights or one big and one small?
The Talmud (Babylonian, Tractate Chulin 60:b) describes the conversation that took place there, between the beginning and end of the verse, between Gd and the moon. The moon, who apparently read the verse too, resents: ‘How is it possible to have two great luminaries? “Lord of the world, is it possible for two kings to use one crown”? God says in response, ‘Dear moon, you are right, this is an impossible situation. If so,” Go and reduce yourself, that is, make yourself smaller than the sun. ‘What’? Says the shocked moon, ‘because I am right I have to get punished?’ and in the Talmud’s language, “Master of the world, because I said to You something decent. I should go and reduce myself”?
Gd offered the moon all kinds of benefits, for example, that the moon would shine both at night and during the day, but the moon replied that lighting in the day, it is like being a candle at noon, useless. Gd promises the moon that according to her, the calendar will be set, butt he moon replied that the calendar is also determined by the sun. Then Gd tells the moon that there will be sages and righteous people known as “the little one”, just like you.
When Gd sees that the moon is not entirely appeased, He says something amazing: “Bring atonement for me that I have diminished the moon,” that is, ‘the moon is right, please, bring a special sacrifice for Me doing so (these sacrifices will soon be read in the Torah portion of “Pinchas”). And we’re more than a little surprised: do we have to bring a sacrifice for Gd ?? Did He do something wrong? So let Him fix it! He is omnipotent, no? And if not, how does it appease the moon, and how does it relate to our Torah portion of the week, Korach?
Korach is a close relative of Moshe and Aharon, a community leader of about 250 people, who disagree with Moshe’s status as a leader and Aharon’s as high priest. Moses suggests a test to prove who’s Gd choice: if Korach dies a natural death, it is a sign that Moses is wrong, but if the earth opens its mouth and swallows Korach and his relatives, it is a sign that Moses is a true prophet. At that moment, Korach, his family and all their property, are swallowed up in the ground, and two hundred and fifty presidents are consumed by fire.
Korach became a symbol of the machloket, controversy that’s “not for heaven’s sake,” as it is written in Pirkei Avot (5:17): “ Any controversy that’s for the sake of heavens – endures, and that which is not for the sake of heaven, doesn’t endure. What is the controversy that’s for the sake of heaven? this is the controversy of Hillel and Shamai. And that which is not for the sake of heaven, that’s Korach and all his people”. We’ll notice that the phrase speaks about “Korach and all his people”, namely, that the controversies were within Korach’s congregation, from within. A hint of this is expressed in the character of On Ben Peled, who partnered with Korach at first, and later, his name is omitted.
What did Korach want?
In his words he said: “For the whole congregation is holy and in the midst of them is Hashem, and why should you rise above Gd’s congregation”? or in our own words, ‘we have no needs for leaders above us, thank you very much. We have all been at the Giving of Torah, we have all seen the voices, we know what God wants from us and what we should do, and we want equality ‘!
Nowadays it can be said that Korach wants “democracy”. No doubt, this is a strong claim that we can identify with. After all, isn’t this what we all want and need? Had we been there, wouldn’t we also join the “we’re all hole” campaign? If so, why was Korach punished and in such a terrible and public way?
Let’s go back to the moon for a moment. What exactly is God asking us to bring a sacrifice for Him? God created a world that has hierarchies: big and small, night and day, good and evil. In the divine world, there are no hierarchies, everything is “One”, but in our world, hierarchy, as an idea and fact, although it frustrates us quite a bit, is necessary in our space of expression and experience. By the way, when the moon hears this, she is appeased. She learns that there is no accidental error here, but Gd’s creation, and that the moon is who she is because it is the revelation of His own will in her.
This is not a simple thing, and it is becoming even more complex (and criticized) nowadays: the way of the Torah is that of distinction and discernment, sacred and profane, holy and mundane. While the Torah teaches us from the very beginning of Genesis that all human beings are created equal in Gd’s image, it also assigns different roles to different people and places. According to the Torah, not everyone is “the same”, and not everything is suitable for everyone. Esau receives Mount Sheir (southwestern Jordan); Jacob – the Land of Israel. The priests – receive ritual duties in the Temple; The Levites – support the priests, and Israel – are the people. Men and women – receive many identical commandments according to the similarities between them, and at the same time, they are also different, and are assigned different roles.
Korach wants to flatten the complex world that Gd created: no more leaders and a people, but “the crooked will turn straight”. However, the harsh reaction against him indicates that there is a certain element of truth in his demand. Had he stood up in the desert, demanding to fly to the moon, most likely he’d be ignored, but he asked for something that seemed just and important. Is it doable, and right? When is it and when is it not?
For 2000 years of exile, we dreamed of the return to Zion and the establishment of a “Jewish home” here. Did we dream of a democratic home?? Many generations after Korach, the prophet Samuel, who is considered one of his descendants, arose and offered a more democratic leadership style. There’s definitely time and place for that too. The problem with Korach is not that his idea is bad but that he thinks his is the only absolute solution that suits everyone, always. For the Torah, democracy is a tool, not a goal. Especially now, let’s hope we find the right place and time for the various tools we have.