Author’s Note: I’d like to dedicate this series to the memory of my father, David Berkowitz, who was always an early and eagle-eyed reader. I like to imagine he is reading this in the heavenly beit midrash, and I hope that he’ll figure out a way to reach me with his follow-up questions.
“Tell me Moses, tell me true:
Tell me Moses, why is it you?
All of us came from Egypt too, so
Why do the Israelites follow you?
Tell me Aaron, tell me why:
You were both chosen by Adonai?
We were also there at Sinai
Take this as our battle cry!”
-- Korach “Jewsical,” Ross Cohen
Each Shabbat at the URJ Six Points Creative Arts Academy, a group of campers, staff, and faculty come together to perform “Jewsical,” an original song about the week’s Torah portion. For Parashat Korach last summer, the musical arrangement was just as significant as the words.
Korach’s song begins with one person singing in the center of the room. Gradually, others join, singing the same words to a slightly different tune. It isn’t quite harmonious or cacophonous, but somewhere in between, growing louder and louder as more singers join the fray.
According to much of Jewish tradition, we are meant to see Korach and his followers as villains. But the simplicity of the lyrics combined with the complexity of the music presented Korach’s arguments in a way that struck a chord with me.
As a Reform Jew, taught to think for myself and challenge the status quo, Korach’s argument sounds reasonable: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Korach’s demand is for a system of worship that is more democratic, something for which we still strive.
In the moment, however, the dispute threatened the authority of the priesthood and needed to be settled by God. Korach, his 250 followers, Moses, and Aaron are all instructed to offer incense in their fire pans at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. God then causes Korach and his people to be swallowed up by the earth, and a fire consumes the rest of the chieftains (Numbers 16:16-35).
The Torah’s verdict against Korach’s rebellion is clear. I can’t help but think about what it must have been like to be a Levite like Korach. While as a Levite, he was tasked with the assembly, transport, and maintenance of the, the traveling sanctuary, he was not quite a part of the sacred service itself. Korach’s first cousins, Aaron and Moses, are the highest-ranking ritual and political leaders, but he and his descendants will never be more than holy schleppers.
It is understandable that Korach would stand up and say, “This isn’t fair!” It is also easy to imagine why other marginalized people, hearing that cry, might join in.
Ross Cohen’s “Jewsical” version of Korach captured this tension perfectly. When I asked him about his creative process, he told me:
“Not only did I want to acknowledge the legitimate concerns and questions of Korach and his followers… I also wanted to highlight the risks of what it means to question authority. I tried to model the melody after early blues and slave songs, where people whose voices weren’t allowed to be heard joined in song.... I intentionally mixed both major and minor tonalities to underscore the fear and uncertainty the Israelites faced in trusting Moses to lead them from Egypt into an unknown future. Because the harmonies constantly switch between pleasant-sounding and unpleasant-sounding chords, singers are forced to enter the mindset of Korach and his followers: while there were times of wonder and miracles in the desert, there were also moments of immense pain and confusion.”
Generations of rabbis have discussed why Korach’s complaint was invalid. They suggest that Korach pelted Moses with “gotcha” questions about the minutiae of ritual law, ultimately accusing Moses of making it all up (Numbers Rabbah 18:3). Many project the political ills of their own day onto Korach, saying that he was motivated by self-interest, arrogance, demagoguery, or greed (“Etz Chayim Torah Commentary”).
Even considering these interpretations, it is difficult to read the story of Korach as a modern Jew. However, there is one element of this story that sticks with me: After the rebellion is quashed, God commands Moses to melt down the rebels’ firepans and make them into copper plating for the altar. This happens for two reasons. First, having been touched by divine fire, the firepans are now holy, and can never be destroyed or discarded. Second, putting them in such a prominent place serves as a permanent reminder to the Israelites of this rebellion and its consequences.
I find it remarkable that something previously used to challenge the authority of the priesthood becomes a permanent part of the sacred shrine. Is this meant to be a grim warning to future rebels or an injunction against those who silence dissent?
While the plain text suggests the former, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook offers an alternative explanation:
“The holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy...plating the altar with the firepans of the rebels is meant to remind us of the legitimacy, indeed, the potential holiness, of the impulse within each of us to rebel against…stagnation and complacency” (“Etz Chayim Torah Commentary”).
The firepans might serve as a reminder that rebellion, just as much as ritual, is a permanent part of who we are. Our life as a people is contingent on questioning accepted truths, facing the consequences of our actions, and learning from our mistakes. Our missteps and moments of conflict are an essential part of who we are.
While Korach and his followers are ultimately killed, their rebellion can never be entirely erased. Their firepans became part of the mishkan; their story is enshrined in our sacred texts.
And nearly a year after first hearing it, Korach’s song is still stuck in my head.