An Israeli slang expression from the 1970s aptly describes the response many modern readers bring to this week's portion, Korach: Ma bashcha? In idiomatic English, this is best rendered as "What's your problem?" Unusually, Korach takes its name from the portion's protagonist (or villain), Korah; it is rare for a biblical antihero to get such attention. For us, though, Korah is a problematic figure; his protest does not appear to be so outrageous! Moses does not even attempt to refute his argument, but instead storms off and appeals for heaven to demonstrate who is really right. According to the Torah's narrative, God is extremely displeased too-such that Korah and his supporters who dared to speak out are literally swallowed up.
The hostility the text and tradition express towards Korah may recall our puzzlement at the harsh treatment the second of the four children receives in the Passover Haggadah. The second child is called rasha, "wicked"-but the child's question does not strike our ears as wicked at all: "What is the meaning of this service to you?" While the tradition reads this question as excluding the asker- "What does it mean to you and not to me"-we may hear this question as being a sincere, listening query, the effort by one person to not prejudge and instead be open to the truth and experience of others. The Haggadah's answer begins with an "I-statement": "Because of what the Eternal did for me when I came forth from Egypt, I do this." But then it quickly escalates: "If you had been there, you would not have been redeemed!" Perhaps it is not the individual speakers whose qualities are characterized in this famous passage but the quality of the conversations that take place: some are wise, some are wicked, some are simple, and so on.
So it is too with Korah. What is so terribly wrong with his query? The question he asks Moses and Aaron seems reasonable enough: "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). Now we do need to have a little sympathy for Moses-he has been publicly challenged not just by Korah and his immediate circle; they also bring two hundred and fifty chieftains with them. It's a full-scale coup attempt! But because we are able, let's set aside the politics and circumstances of the revolt, and concentrate on the question they raise: What is the basis for the superiority of Moses and Aaron over the rest of the people? Are we not a democracy of holiness?
The Jewish religious tradition equivocates about the special status of individuals and their spiritual leadership. On the one hand, Moses is recognized as the greatest of the prophets; on his death, the Torah declares, "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses" (Deuteronomy 34:10). Aaron's special role as high priest, transmitted down through the generations, was preserved as long as the Temple stood and, to this day in some Jewish communities, certain privileges are reserved for those who claim descent from the ancient priestly line. (Reform Judaism does not recognize these ancient caste divisions.)
In the aggadic tradition, there are many stories of individual rabbis with extraordinary spiritual powers who commanded respect and awe. In Chasidic teaching, the sacred is embodied in the person of the tzaddik, and his presence, touch, and blessing are ascribed enormous power and significance. But the central Jewish religious leader, the rabbi, has been defined for over two thousand years as a person whose leadership is rooted in learning, not in spiritual charisma; the rabbinate is open to any male (or female in the Reform and Conservative traditions) Jew regardless of family background; and Jewish religious ceremonies do not require a rabbi per se so much as a learned officiant. What is wrong then with Korah's proclamation that the Divine Presence can be found throughout the people and not just with its leaders?
Korah presses his claim by invoking two of our favorite Torah verses. On the eve of the revelation at Mount Sinai, God calls to Moses and tells him to inform the people of Israel: "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel" (Exodus 19:6). This summons to spiritual leadership is explicitly addressed to the entire nation. This verse, teaches Martin Buber, is the first commandment (see Nahum Glatzer, ed., The Way of Response: Martin Buber [New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1966], p. 162). Surely Korah has this verse in mind as he declares: "All the community are holy, all of them . . ." The second verse that Korah invokes is the wonderful verse from the beginning of Parashat T'rumah: the nation is commanded to "make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). Commentators, ancient and modern, love to call attention to the unexpected pronoun: God does not promise to dwell b'tocho, "in it" (the sanctuary) but rather b'tocham, "among them" (the people). Korah knows this verse too, announcing: "The Eternal is in their midst [uv'tocham Adonai]" (Numbers 16:3).
Korah's tragic error, according to Martin Buber, was to misread the verse in Exodus 19. Korah reads the verse as descriptive: the people are already holy, each one, and the presence of God is within each one. They therefore have no need of instruction, authority, or further spiritual growth.
"Both Moses and Korah desired the people to be the people of YHVH, the holy people. But for Moses this was the goal. In order to reach it, generation after generation had to chose again and again . . . . For Korah the people, as being the people of YHVH, were already holy. They had been chosen by God and [God] dwell in their midst, so why should there by further need of ways and choice? The people was holy just as it was, and all those within it were holy just as they were" (Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant [New York: Harper & Row, 1958], p. 189). The conflict between Moses and Korah was not one of personality or the centralization of spiritual authority: rather, it was the inability of Korah to imagine that he (and the community) still needed to spiritually grow for, "not being but becoming is [our] task . . . . " and although the "realization of the divine on earth. . . has its beginning in the life of [the] individual, it is consummated only in the life of true community" (The Way of Response, p. 162).
This teaching was inspired by the bar mitzvah d'rash of Eugene Heimann, Parashat Korach, Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, 5769.
Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.