This week's Torah portion is a doozy: Korach. The text tells us that Korach and his followers assembled "against Moses and against Aaron and said to them: Too much is yours! Indeed, the entire community, the entirety of them, are holy, and in their midst is YHWH! Why then do you exalt yourselves over the assembly of YHWH?" Korach, it seems, rebelled against his lot in life; he wanted to be high priest, or perhaps he believed the Children of Israel should be a nation of priests, each capable of making offerings to God.
To make a long story short, when Korach and his followers made fire and incense offerings to God, the earth opened to swallow Korach and his followers and their households, who went down alive into Sheol. Then God caused a plague, which Aaron appeased with incense (but not before another 14,700 people died). Then there's the strange and beautiful story of Aaron's staff bearing flowers and almonds (which deserves its own blog post at some point). The remainder of the portion deals with the nature of appropriate offerings to God.
I find this parasha problematic. Because deep down, I agree with Korach that our entire community is capable of becoming holy. And my modern sensibilities are appalled first that all of Korach's followers' households vanish into the earth, and then by the plague that kills more than fourteen thousand others. The punishment strikes me as seriously out of proportion to the crime. What should I make of this parasha?
True, the part of me that likes a good story has to admit that there's something gorgeously dramatic about causing the earth to swallow Korach and his followers on the spot. (To me it echoes the whale swallowing Jonah.) This strikes me as fertile ground for midrash: what precisely is Sheol? Where did Korach and his followers go? Did they ever die, or are they still underground somewhere/somehow?
The author of this commentary observes that only five Torah portions are named after peple, and that each of these people has a revolutionary and important role. Two are rebels whose plots were foiled (Balak and Korach), two make the world better for the Israelites (Pinchas and Jethro), and one saves the world and then sets it sinning again (Noah). That puts Korach in pretty interesting company.
What was Korach's sin? Was it the hubris of believing that he didn't need priestly intercession to reach God? (In that case, maybe he was just ahead of his time; arguably he presaged the post-Temple era, but neither God nor the Israelites were ready for that.) Was it his jealousy of Moses and Aaron, or challenging God's plan for the Israelites? Was it trying to usurp the role of high priest (showing that he didn't really believe everyone was equally holy: he just wanted the job for himself)?
This commentary tells us that Rashi interprets the first two words, Vayikach Korach ("Korach took"), to mean that Korach took himself outside of the community in order to attack Moses. According to this view, his sin was removing himself from the community, rather than challenging authority in a legitimate way.
This commentary cites Y. Leibowitz's argument that the real issue here is the nature of holiness. It is the responsibility of the Israelites to strive toward holiness, to sanctify themselves; Korach's error was declaring that holiness was innate to the Israelite people. Being an Israelite, Leibowitz says, does not make one automatically holy; holiness arises through righteousness, and takes some work.
I'll close by pointing you to Richard Hirsh 's commentary, which explores contemporary discomfort with this story, and observes that the story continues to be resonant today as the Jewish community struggles to define what we want to be and who takes part in that process of self-definition. He sees fascinating resonance between the Korach story and the question of how and whether informed laypeople gain agency in shaping the Judaism of the years to come.