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Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshat Korach and the Soviet Jewish Experience

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, we discuss Korach, the great grandson of Levi, who cobbled together a crew of 250 respected communal leaders, along with Datan, Abiram, and On, who were descendants of Reuven. They journeyed in the desert away from Egypt towards the promises of freedom in the land of Israel. Along the way, the group rose up against Moses and his authority and accused him of acting “holier than thou” than those whom they perceived to be truly holy people.

The people indignantly questioned Moses by saying, “Why then do you raise yourself up against God’s congregation?” Moses was stunned by the allegations and metaphorically threw up his hands and offered the most fair judgment by allowing God to decide who was the rightful leader. As part of this ritual, Moses challenged Korach and his followers to a fire-pan ritual (similar to a contest) in the sanctuary the next morning. Confident in what the results would be, Moses asserted that “God will make holy who is and who is not.” Ultimately, the rebels are consumed in flames for their dissent and disobedience.

Numbers 16: 8–9 captures the rebellion: “Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab. But they said, ‘We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?’”

For many, this week’s Torah portion is a sensitive subject, but for others it is their favorite. When we read the text, the words “rebellion” and “insurrection” are unmistakable. In my first month, I commented the following in Root’s article, our calling as Jews is naturally quite an undertaking. By toiling through the text, we can achieve moral and ethical clarity by challenging what we believe in and what others believe in. We do this not only for Am Yisrael but also for all of humanity.

In this week’s Torah portion, we directly see the underbelly of this struggle with ourselves as Jews. Only by first achieving our own moral clarity on behalf of Am Yisrael are we able to serve others. Without clearly understanding ourselves and our identity, we cannot serve others properly.

Natan Sharansky wrote in his memoir, Fear No Evil, that while inside of a Soviet Gulag, “For the activist Jews of my generation, our [Refusenik] movement represented the exact opposite of what our parents had gone through [Marxism] when they were young. But we saw what had happened to their dreams, and we understood that the path to liberation could not be found in denying our own roots while pursuing universal goals. On the contrary, we had to deepen our commitment, because only he who understands his own identity and has already become a free person can work effectively for the human rights of others.”

After parsing Sharansky’s words, imagine again Korach standing before Moses in Numbers 16:10 as he states, “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 Hashem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?’”

What promises did Korach make for society? Equality? Elimination of stratum and religious castes and classes? If his vision had been fulfilled, would it have been true to its message?

Let us return to Natan Sharansky’s autobiography of the inside of a Soviet Union Gulag. A generation before his time in 1917, Jews joined their countrymen and locked arms around one of the most prominent ideologies, the Marxist message “Workers of the World Unite!” Marx, Trotsky, and Lenin all bore the mark of Everei in their passport and identity cards to display that they were Hebrew or Jewish. Despite being downtrodden by discriminatory polices, they held high hopes for a future where society is rid of classes and religion.

George Orwell remarked in his allegorical novella Animal Farm that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” As you may recall from the novella, Comrade Napoleon was an allegory for Stalin whose promises of equality contributed to discriminatory and conflicting ideologies towards Jews and other minorities. From the story, Snowball was also an allegory for Leon Trotsky who led the strongest opposition against Stalin.

However, Snowball and Trotsky may also be also excellent allegories for Korach in this week’s Torah portion. Both Trotsky and Korach were Jewish, and much like Trotsky, Korach failed to deliver on his promise and ideological vision. Korach sought to create a world devoid of classes, but elevated himself to a leadership position in the opposition.

The Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra deduced that this entire dispute originated from a political shift orchestrated by Moses in an effort to consolidate the rights of firstborn males and apply them exclusively to the Levites. However, the persuasiveness of his argument wavered because his explanation failed to address the widespread support Korach’s movement enjoyed despite the fact that they were not Levites.

This begs the question—how did Korach garner such hostility from the Israelite people by using an argument that was blatantly self-serving? The Talmud sheds light on this enigma by explaining that “to foment his rebellion, Korach spent all night, tribe to tribe, accusing Moses and Aaron of wrongdoing.” He carefully crafted his speech for each audience, but his message always made the same point: “I am not like Moses and Aaron, who want to attain fame and power for themselves. I want all of us to enjoy life.” Korach won the support of the people by deceiving them. The remaining Israelites condemned Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the rebels, despite having witnessed God’s divine punishment and the ensuing tragedy.

Nehama Leibowitz, a modern Torah scholar, sheds light on this mystery. He describes two different types of disputes: good and bad. He describes Korach’s rebellion by stating, “[There is] one that is pursued for ‘heavenly’ or good cause and one that is pursued for selfish reasons.” In other words, Leibowitz would place this particular dispute under the “bad” category because Korach’s visions of equality and equanimity were always unachievable. However, Korach’s distinguished followers were not only motivated by a self-serving promise of elevated stature; they also propagated the fallacy that Moses’ leadership was inadequate. Perhaps most disturbing of all was the lack of opposition towards the false narrative peddled before them.

Ultimately, we wouldn’t be Jews without people like Korach and Trotsky. They are important to us and our history, but they don’t define us. They and their ideologies conflict with our contemporary identity, but somehow they are also innately Jewish. By exploring their actions and challenging what we believe in and what others believe in, we achieve more moral and ethical clarity. This clarity must always serve Am Yisrael first and should always be a light for all nations. As Natan Sharansky once said, only those who understands their own “identity and has already become a free person can work effectively for the human rights of others.” May the message of Korach remind us of the voice of dissent amongst our people. May the desires of Korach challenging our theology provide moral and ethical clarity from generation to generation. May this tradition continue to endure as the lifeblood of our people and the manna in the deserts of anguish. May it always lead us to Israel, a better place flowing with milk and honey.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is an imminent rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel.
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