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Rebel Without a Cause

  • Rebel Without a Cause

    Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
D'var Torah By: 

A friend of mine once made the observation that America is a culture in which a person might scrawl graffiti on a wall that says "Challenge Authority," and another person will cross it out, Challenge Authority. I love the irony of that observation, and I have always thought that it also applies to Jewish culture. Are we not the original authority challengers? Abraham smashed his father's idols; Nathan pointed his finger at King David; Elijah thundered, "Would you murder and take possession?" (1 Kings 21:19) We approve of those who stand up to authority, but only up to a point.

Korach presents us with an exception: He is the rebel who challenges authority, but is still rejected by the Torah. The question is, Why? Is Korach a "rebel with a cause"? or is he a "rebel without a cause"? For us, Korach is the personification of the rebel who has no cause. Pirke Avot explicitly notes, "[Which controversy] is not pursued for a heavenly purpose? This is the controversy of Korach and his band." (Avot 5:17) According to this interpretation, it seems that Korach is out only for himself, his own advancement and has no loftier reason for challenging authority. Korach is the proverbial troublemaker.

Nehama Leibowitz, in her own interpretation of the portion, tries to make this point by noting the grammatical construction of Numbers 16:3: "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, every one of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of Adonai."

Leibowitz notes the plural "community are holy" as opposed to "community is holy." She intimates that in speaking thus, Korach considers the Israelites to be a community of individuals, not a collective unit. Korach's purpose is not a mission of holiness and is not intended to advance a nobler purpose: It is a challenge rooted in his own individual ambition. Leibowitz writes that Korach and his followers "were simply a band of malcontents, each harboring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron and hoping thereby to attain their individual desires." (Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 182)

Korach is thus a model of a destructive voice, challenging authority for no purpose other than his own personal advancement and wanton destructiveness. Why, then, is this story in the Torah? What did our ancestors want us to learn from it? Of course we learn from negative models as well as positive ones, but perhaps there is something more here. As noted above, there is something of a countercultural, challenging spirit in Judaism. There is perhaps something in each of us that urges us to rock the establishment, shake the status quo, and rebel. This parashah offers us guidance about what kind of rebels we should be. It teaches us that if we do not have a higher sustaining cause, challenging authority is simply spreading graffiti, destroying without creating.

Davar acher – an additional word: Whenever I read the Korach story, I am always compelled to compare it with the story of the golden calf. In the Korach story, Moses' leadership is challenged by a usurper. In the story of the golden calf, it is God who is challenged by an idol. In the Korach story, when Moses is challenged, God opens up the earth, swallowing the rebels, and killing them. In the golden calf story, Moses comes to the defense of God, killing the offenders. In both stories, it is Moses who stands between God and the destruction of all Israel. (Numbers 16:31; Exodus 32:10) These two stories are in a sense flip sides of the same coin. For me, they serve to underscore the intensity and closeness of the relationship that Moses and God share. They are dependent on each other. They are apart from all others. In a real sense, the Israelites are witness to a relationship that is beyond the covenant between God and all Israel. When the Torah ends with the words describing the uniqueness of Moses, who had known God "face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10), it is the moments such as the Korach story that echo.

A Rebel, His Descendants, and a Piece of Wood
Davar Acher By: 
Josée Wolff

Two things caught my attention as I was reading this week's Torah portion, parashat Korach. The first concerns the fate of the progeny of Korach. In Numbers 16: 32 we read: "And the earth opened its mouth wide and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach's people and all their possessions." Because I am a cantor, I immediately thought of Psalms texts such as: "A Song and Psalm of the sons of Korach." (Psalms 48:1)

In total, eleven psalms are dedicated to the sons of Korach. What exactly happened to them? Tradition says that they repented, were spared, and became the choristers in the Temple and the progenitors of Samuel. (Numbers Rabbah 18) Later, a place was set aside for them in the netherworld, where they sit and sing praises to God. (Sanhedrin 110a)

During the rabbinic period, requirements for the chazan, the prayer-leader/singer, were extremely rigorous. Some sources state that not only the person himself had to be absolutely pure and without sins, his ancestors had to be the same way. Could the Levite choir singers, whose voices praised God in song, indeed be the descendants of Judaism's worst biblical rebel, Korach? What does this teach us about the power of repentance?

The second thing that came to mind occurs later in the portion, in Numbers 17: 21-26. Moses puts twelve staffs, each with the names of one of the twelve tribes inscribed on it, in the Tent of the Pact: "The next day, Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds." A seemingly dead piece of wood had come to life, the antithesis of the death and destruction that happened to Korach and his fellow rebels.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman talks about the symbolism of the staff. He compares it to a conductor's baton or a magician's staff. But these tools produce beautiful music or magic only in the hands of the right user and in the right context. When Moses uses his staff the way God tells him to, everything is fine. But when Moses hits the rock, an act that is unauthorized by God, Moses has to pay the consequences later on. Aaron's staff is only able to blossom when it is deposited in the sacred space where God's Presence dwells.

If we see the staff as a symbol of authority and/or identity, we can easily apply it to our own circumstances. For some of us, our staff is our voice, for others, it is our president's gavel or our pen.

What does that teach us about using our staffs? How can we make sure that we use our talents and gifts properly and not abuse them? What does this tell our leaders and our teachers about the use of authority? May it be God's will that we make sure we use our staffs in the right way and in the right context so that they will sprout, blossom, and ultimately bear fruits and produce sacred music.

Reference Materials: 

Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914