Reflections on reading aloud
Pearls from Heschel's Heavenly Torah

Korach, privilege, and striving for more

Korach-rebellion-TTThe story of Korach is a fascinating one.

Right on the heels of last week's portion (the scouts, their negative report, the declaration that this generation would wander in the wilderness for forty years), Korach decides it's a good time to foment rebellion.  He tells Moses and Aaron that they have no right to raise themselves above the community, because the whole community is holy. A sacrifice contest ensues, in which Aaron makes an incense offering and so do Korach and his followers. God, exasperated, tells Moses and Aaron to stand back so that God can wipe out the whole ornery community. But Moses argues that it's not fair to punish the whole community for the sins of just a few. So instead, God causes the earth to open up, and it swallows Korach and his followers.

This year I'm struck, right away, by the detail that Korach is a son of Levi. In the ancient priestly system, there were three categories of Israelites: kohen, levi, and yisrael. The Levi'im, or Levites, had the special task of performing certain kinds of priestly and sacrificial service. The Kohanim, a subgroup of Levi'im, were the Levites who were descended from Aaron directly. (Since Aaron didn't worship the Golden Calf, the story goes, he and his descendants were granted the privilege of making the sacrifices.) Everyone else fell into the category of Yisrael.

Korach's argument appears, initially, to be a communitarian one. "For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai's congregation?" Who among us can't relate to this plaintive outcry? All the community is holy, not just the people who do the work of leadership! Maybe especially when that leadership is a hereditary privilege, open only to a certain few. It's easy for that to rankle.

But Korach isn't speaking on behalf of the ordinary Israelite who might feel disenfranchised by Moses and Aaron. Korach is a Levite, already part of the hereditary priestly system. He says the whole community is holy, but when push comes to shove, he battles with Aaron via competing sacrifices. It appears that he wants to be High Priest himself. Seen through that lens, suddenly his rebellion doesn't look so laudable.

Of course, it's possible that this story was enshrined in Torah because the priests wanted to make sure that their exclusive right to the priesthood was understood to be divinely-ordained. (The Documentary Hypothesis ascribes the story of Korach's rebellion to P, or "priestly," source.) But that doesn't make it any less powerful as a parable about human nature.

Korach has a legitimate argument for how the community could become more just -- but he sabotages his own argument because he's not willing or able to work within existing community systems to create change. (And it doesn't seem to occur to him that from the outside, his impassioned drive for change also looks like a way of solidifying and expanding his own privilege.) How might his story (and ours) have been different if he'd been willing to look for the partial truth even in the viewpoint with which he disagreed?

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have relinquished the divisions between kohen, levi, and yisrael. In our egalitarian communities, all are equal (whether descended trom one tribe or another; whether Jews by birth, or Jews by choice.) And even in parts of the Jewish world which still honor the kohen/levi/yisrael divisions, the rabbinate has never been a hereditary aristocracy, and each Jew has the full right to connect with God in prayer.

Maybe we've finally built what Korach was agitating for. I suspect that we can still benefit from learning from Korach's mistakes. We need to bear in mind that if our yearning for social justice is going to bear fruit, it may require us to work within flawed systems. That it's laudable to strive for more, but we need to be conscious of our own privilege and of how others see us. The whole community is holy, and God is indeed in our midst! And the best way to open ourselves to that divine presence is to be gracious, generous, and kind to each other, even when we disagree. Otherwise, we may be swallowed up by our own self-importance, and lose the opportunity to build a better world.


 I don't know who's responsible for the image which accompanies this post; if you do, please tell me and I'll amend the post.

Previous divrei Torah for this portion: