A few moments ago in Parashat Korah we read about an attempt at change. A group of people in today’s reading claims to be fighting for justice. The self-proclaimed revolutionaries come to the leaders of their nation, and declare, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
What a compelling rallying cry! כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה. — we are all holy, and God is among us. Isn’t that exactly what we believe? God has told the people — ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש
— You are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Every Israelite is holy, every one of them is a priest, so why is Aaron’s priesthood more elite, with more access to God than anyone else? Why should Aaron and his sons be intermediaries to God, when every Israelite is holy?
These words sound like the words of an oppressed people rallying together for equality against an unjust government. We too are worthy!
There’s a midrash about Korah, from the book of B’Midbar Rabba that could be read as supporting this perspective. The midrash points out that the passage immediately before the story of Korah is about the commandment to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our tallit. The midrash connects these stories. “What is written directly before this passage? “Instruct them to make for themselves… fringes… and to attach to the fringe at each corner a thread of blue” Korah jumped up and asked Moses, “if a cloak is entirely blue, what is the law? Should it be exempt from the obligation of fringes?” Moses replied, “It is still subject to such obligations.” Korah retorted, “The blueness of a cloak entirely blue cannot free it from the obligation, yet four threads can do so?” He went on, “If a house is full of Torah scrolls, what is the law? Should it be free from the obligation of having a mezuzah?” Moses replied, “It is still under the obligation of having a mezuzah.” Korah snapped back, “The entire Torah cannot exempt a house, but the two sections in a mezuzah exempt it? These things– you have not been commanded concerning them, you are just making them up.”
Despite the seeming justice in Korah’s claims, as we soon learn, God does not take kindly to these would-be revolutionaries. The ground swallows some of them whole, and the others are consumed in a fire. Is that because God is just inherently undemocratic, and opposed to criticism or opposition?
That seems unlikely. In just a few weeks, we will read about the daughters of Tzlofchad, who come to Moses with an objection to a law, and God changes the law! And Jewish tradition in the Talmud holds up the value of respectful disagreement, routinely preserving opinions which never gained traction, but which nevertheless were recorded.
So why did this particular call to equality meet with such a violent rejection?
One answer is to argue that God overreacted. Maybe God can accept critiques about specific laws, but to suggest that the whole hierarchy, with Moses and Aaron at the top, was autocratic and unjust, was too dramatic of a change for God to be able to take. In that view, maybe the only sin of Korah and his fellow revolutionaries was in trying to change too much, too fast.
But before we can say that, we need to explore other options. After all, before we judge a situation, we want to know the context. So what is the context to these requests for equality?
Let’s start by looking at the leaders. There are actually two groups advocating for change here, and we’re going to look at them one at a time. First we have Korah and his followers. Korah is introduced to us as קֹ֔רַח בֶּן־יִצְהָ֥ר בֶּן־קְהָ֖ת בֶּן־לֵוִ֑י. Korah is a Levite, the same tribe as Moses and Aaron. Now this is interesting, because the Levites are the priestly tribe, who will later serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. All of the Levites have a somewhat elevated religious status in Israelite society, but only Aaron and his descendants serve as priests, making sacrifices in the tabernacle, and later in the Temple. This hierarchy is preserved in some congregations today, where the first aliyah is reserved for priests, descendants of Aaron, and the second is for Levites, i.e. anyone from the Levite tribe who is not descended from Aaron.
Scholars tell us that historically, there may have been a point where all Levites were understood to be priests, and that later, the multi-tier system that we see today was imposed. So this story may be a reflection of the resentment that some of the Levites may have had about their intermediate status.
With this context in mind, it seems likely that Korah is not suggesting that all Israelites be given equal access to make sacrifices to God. Rather, this story in context appears to be that of a person with some power, expressing resentment against those with more power. He doesn’t want power for everyone, only for himself!
Moses understands this dynamic, telling the Levites “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to God, to perform the duties of God’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that God has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?”
This dynamic is confirmed when Korah and his followers accept the challenge that Moses sets up between them and Aaron and his sons. Each group shows up with firepans full of incense, and waits to see whose offering God will accept. Korah and his followers want to be the ones to offer incense, they don’t want that for everyone!
A similar dynamic is at play for the other rebellion story in this parashah. Datan and Aviram, from the tribe of Reuben, rebel against Moses’s political authority at the same time that Korah rebels against Aaron’s religious authority. Reuben, as the oldest son of Jacob, was expected to be his heir. So it is understandable if Reuben’s descendants might harbor resentment when a member of a different tribe assumed political leadership of the Israelite community. Once again, we see a group who has some status, asking for more status. And in fact, they don’t even offer a new vision for society once they are in change. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “They don’t have a plan, they just hate mine!” Datan and Aviram don’t actually want an equal society, they want to be the leaders themselves!
So in both cases, what was presented as a democratic struggle for justice may really just be an attempted coup. One group wants the power, and they claim to want power for everyone, until they get it. Then they just replace the group in power.
It can be disconcerting and upsetting to see insincere governments and movements utilizing otherwise compelling slogans and ideas. In doing so, they deceive, and they also threaten the power of those ideas, because they dilute them. Take “Drain the swamp!” That phrase, originally used to challenge the power of corporate money in Washington, has now been used to mean get rid of any officials who won’t profess utter loyalty to the particular politicians in power. It completely guts the meaning of the original concept.
It’s not always easy to know the difference between sincere revolutionaries and power-hungry would-be autocrats. We see this around the world– sometimes revolutions lead to substantive, lasting improvements, and sometimes hopes are dashed as the new leaders fall into the same corrupt patterns as the previous ones. Sometimes the same slogans are used by both types of groups, making it hard to tell who is the real change-maker.
One of the things that I take away from Korah’s story is that a true message can come from anyone, but the identity of the messenger matters. Korah’s words ring true– we really are all holy, and God really does dwell with every one of us– but that doesn’t mean that Korah’s motives are pure, or that his plan would lead to a more equal society. The Talmud tells us that there are two types of disagreements, those that are for the sake of heaven, and those that are not for the sake of heaven. What is the prime example of an argument that is not for the sake of heaven? The argument that Korah made. In other words, it was Korah’s intent, not his words, that was so problematic.
The parashah begins with “ויקח קרח”, Korah took. What did he take? Rashi tells us, he took words. He took those words, and he used them as a weapon. Words matter, and we need to use them honestly. Word can evoke emotion, words can provoke action, words can deceive, and words can destroy. How a person uses words tells us about themselves.
It is important to assess, not just a person’s words, but their character and their motives, as we determine whether to partner with them. Now that doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree with leaders or coalition partners about particular issues– I actually think it’s really valuable when groups that disagree can come together about issues that they do have in common– but it does mean that we need to be able to trust that when it comes to the particular issue that we are working on together, we are on the same page.
Today, there are a number of movements working for change. Many of these movements aim to create a world which acknowledges the holiness of each person. They have clear visions of what the world can be when they succeed, and concrete strategies to get there. Those movements are made of people who sincerely want a better world, not just for themselves, but for everyone else. That is the type of movement worth fighting for.
My prayer for us, and for our society, is that we do come together to create real, meaningful change that truly advances the equality of every person. May we sincerely, without ulterior motives, come together with like-minded people to create a society which truly acts out the message that every person is holy.