This week, in parashat Korach, Korach dares to argue that all of the community is holy and therefore the kohanim don't deserve a monopoly on their priestly role. In response, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers. This is one of the most fascinating, powerful, and problematic stories in Torah. It draws me and repels me in nearly equal measure.
If you're looking for insightful commentary on Korach, allow me to recommend Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman's Korah and Determinism, which explores questions of predestination, awe of heaven, and free will by reading Korach through the lens of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. I brought that text to my weekly hevruta group, and after a close reading of Rabbi Chipman and the Ishbitzer, we wound up talking about how each of us sees the story of Korach, and how our understandings have changed over time.
I've long identified with Korach, who can be read as a proponent of democracy, of grassroots activism, of empowerment. The entire people is holy, he says; power shouldn't be consolidated in the hands of an élite; each of us should be able to draw near to God. We aspire to holy community, don't we? And what could be more holy than a community in which everyone takes responsibility for her or his own relationship with God? That's part of why I entered rabbinic school -- in order to learn how to empower people to fully inhabit their relationship with Jewish tradition and with God.
It's easy to read this story as a conflict between Korach -- the wild figure who finds holiness in all people and who insists people can relate to God on their own -- and Moses and Aaron, the staid and stodgy representatives of the status quo, promulgators of hierarchy and order. Given that dichotomy, I've always been more of a Korach type. (Except, of course, that Korach is ultimately swallowed up by the earth -- not exactly the kind of future I'm looking for.)
Funny thing, though. As I settle more firmly into rabbinic school, I'm starting to relate more to Aaron and to Moses. My inner Korach still calls out for an egalitarian commitment to the holiness of the whole community -- but now he's answered by the growing voice of my inner Moshe....