Korach: Undoing Midrashic Damage

9 July 2016

Numbers Chapter 16

1 Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — 2 to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.  3 They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have too much (rav la’hem)!  For all the community (edah) are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?”

One thing I have struggled with as I have looked at the parasha now with a keener eye for last 112 shabbatot (this Shabbat begins my 3rd year at CRZ) is the midrashic (ancient commentaries) reads or rabbinic overstepping of the Hebrew in the torah.  The condemnation of characters to whom the Hebrew seems to reserve Judgement:  Ishmael and Hagar, Esau and others.  If we had a tradition devoid of commentary and all we had was the text, how would we feel about these individuals?  Or, the more apt question, how would we feel about Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Moses?  What does it say about us, about society that we need condemn or relegate some to a lower rung of our community?

I think since Judaism is so far from the religion of the bible that these questions do not bother us — convenience, also, plays a role.  After being taught the text alongside the midrashim and commentaries of rabbis throughout the generations, we come to believe them not as interpretation but something akin to a morally understandable translation, one which we do not challenge.  Of course Ishmael was bullying his younger brother, Hagar’s cruel treatment and superior attitude towards Sarah merited a certain death in the desert.  But this is dangerous and we have all, at least at some point, been victims to this form of reading the torah.

I have stated many times that it was not until rabbinical school that I realized that Abraham smashing his father’s idols was nowhere to be found in the torah (this was the midrashic understanding of why Abraham was chosen by God).  We laugh at this because it is cute, and it these stories that make rabbis endearing, I hope.  But what are the ramifications of this?  It leads us to think we, as descendants of Abraham and Moses rather than Ishmael or Korah, as meriting the privileges we enjoy, as people blessed with a sanctity that was earned from birth rather than from deeds and actions.

We can certainly, without any help from the rabbis, read Korah’s actions as the tradition has.  Here are some of the words that I found to describe him or his motives:  base, disreputable (Yeshayahu Leibowitz), unholy, selfish (Malbim), he removed himself from the community (i.e. not holy — Onkelos), and Rashi takes his words to mean that he was concerned that Moses received all the greatness for himself. An early Midrash compares him to those in Psalm 1 and says he “led people in the path of sinners and scorn.”  We can see him as someone who was out to further himself and his cause, to complain and campaign against others getting the glory when he wanted it.  If all we had was the text, we could write those same damning comments and midrashim.  But is there another way to read him?  Should our morality dictate reading this story in another way?

The Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz (z’l) read this parasha and asked what connects Korah with last week’s parasha that concluded with the Shema and specifically the mitzvah of Tzizit.  He pointed out that Tzitzit and Korah have little in common, but both speak to or about a sense of holiness.  But Tzitzit is aspirational; it is, as Leibowitz states, “a goal.”   In the Shema we are not told “you are holy,” but we are commanded to be holy and hopefully over the course of our lives we meet that goal, if only through our striving.  But Korah said everyone is holy.  On the surface and the plain sense of the text, it seems he is saying that holiness is imbedded in our DNA as Tzelem Elohim/made in the divine image.

The rabbis in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 5:17) say, “any mahloket/disagreement carried out for a heavenly cause is sustained or destined to endure.”  The rabbis continue with the question, “What constitutes a heavenly cause?  These are the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai.  So what would not constitute a holy disagreement?  That of Korah and his followers.”

Malbim addresses this Mishna by saying that Korah simply wanted the High Priesthood, which illustrates that he simply had selfish goals.  And, ultimately, the malhoket was not going to be between him and Moses but rather between him and his followers since they were all out for themselves.  Malbim completely abuses and misinterprets the term edah/group or community in order to serve his hermeneutic goals, inserting a sense of division into the word that is not actually there. 

Often we see a group of rebels, or protesters, of those who are oppressed, and their message gets scrambled by those on the fringes of the group.  What starts as a sensible, well-intentioned, and even understood from the mainstream, from the established group turns in the minds of those in power to something chaotic, radical and something that needs to be suppressed.  The margins of the margins become the loudest; and the leaders and the ordinary citizens who believes in those leaders shout them down out of fear, hostility and, I think above all else, a complete inability to see their perspective.  An inability to see what it must be like to walk in their shoes, or perhaps more maliciously, a desire to look away.

I find it hard, this week more than usual, to read Korah demanding dignity and equality from Moses and in the face of God as something that needs to be suppressed and vilified by the tradition.  Holiness is a word we do not know its true meaning or biblical sense.  We all know how to separate ourselves for a sense of good, for a sense of personal and communal meaning — Kashrut, Shabbat.  But what about when we separate ourselves out of a sense of fear, enmity, and a desire to maintain the status quo because that status quo works for us!

What if we read Korah’s words “rav la’hem” not as you are so great and I want that greatness, but we read it as “you have so much” and WE ALL SHOULD HAVE THAT, or we should all share in that wealth and power?  What if we read the word edah not as his “band of malcontents” but rather as his community, his supportive group.  His supportive group who knows what it feels like to be less than, yet is unwilling to maintain that position of inferiority?

The hardest thing to do when you are comfortable, when you are safe and that means privileged, is to identify in a meaningful way with those who are oppressed.  To understand what drives their actions, their bold and courageous acts and likewise the misguided and often tragic ones.  We need to fight the natural urge to demand justice because police officers were killed and neglect what preceded it.  Please fight the urge to offer antidotes to violence or moral prescriptions for those whom you see as weak or poor.  Embrace the challenge of listening!  Embrace the struggle to see the hearts of the oppressed and fight so that you can to see the origins of this struggle — the hatred and racism on all levels that brought the myriad of tragedies down the previous three days.      

God cries anytime an innocent person dies, whether they died while doing their job or while harmlessly sitting in their car or standing outside late night.  God can stand in judgement of their actions and intentions and, hopefully, our legal system can mirror that.  We must stand with the gavels of empathy.

We have a natural desire for hierarchy.  We see this in parashat Mishpatim, that immediately after being freed from Egypt we will, ourselves, turn to enslaving others.  That is also in our DNA and we must spend energy fighting that desire, others will not and we must then spend equal time fighting their evil desires.  I am reading Korah as demanding that we, if not fight for, speak and speak out loudly whether on the Dan Ryan Expressway or at the office water cooler for the humanity of everyone in the face of the law.

I want each of us to be challenged to see Korah not rising up against Moses in a power struggle but rising up against a system that might have held him down.  Whether or not that was case, and I recognize given different world circumstances I might have had a completely different read of this story.  But I am asking each of you, as I am demanding of myself, that we see the other in our text, see the other in the face of our neighbors and most important, see the holiness and humanity in the eye of those who live beyond the physical or metaphoric boundaries of the term neighbor.

What can we do to help in this very present, yet old struggle for freedom?  What will we do to prevent it from being swallowed up like Korah?

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf