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.