On a week when we delve deep into dealing with dispute, a little message of peace can’t hurt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNGqqFaahGY
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This week’s reading presents us with The “role-model” for machloket – dispute or controversy, Korach. Why does he stand out and what do we want from the poor guy?
Well, “poor” would be a matter of definition: In modern Hebrew we use the term “ashir ke-Korach – wealthy as Korach (and no one else) to express immense financial affluence. The midrash tells us that Korach was so “loaded” that he had 300 oxen just to carry the keys to his treasury! And yet, in Pirkei Avot we learn that a wealthy person is “one who is happy with their portion” (4:1). Korach in that sense is indeed the poorest person in the world. Like Haman in the Purim story, he too lives under the motto of “and all that is not enough” (Esther 5:13). Should we feel sorry for him for maybe all he had was money without prestigious, we know that he was also a Levite and had a respectful job in the service of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)
But Korach is bitter, churning and turning, not because his lot is small but because he has his eyes on what his cousins, Moses and Aaron, have; not in exchange for what he has, but in addition; not for anyone’s well-being and benefits; just to have.
The Torah portion begins with “And took Korach…” (Numbers 16:1). I’m purposefully leaving the Hebrew order of words, to emphasize that the reading opens with taking. What did he take? The commentators try to explain and the more they try, the more we know that we have no idea and it does not matter. The Torah wants to alert us that he is a “taker”; a taker not for the sake of giving but for the sake of hording. As such he stops the “flow” of what’s around him. Ultimately, the earth will open up to swallow him, his family and their property in a grand gesture. His connection to earthly materialism, envy and chase after honor, take him down.
Some say that what Korach took is the word “emet”, truth, from the end of last week’s reading, at the end of the section about tzitzit. The tzitzit is a garment worn over the body, against the heart, not to be confused with the tzitz, which is what Aaron, the high priest, one of the positions Korach envied, wore to his head. Not to be confused, or was it? Korach mixes up “head” and “heart”. What should lead our decisions, especially as those impact others? Just last week, we read “do not follow your heart and eyes… (15:39)”…
Korach’s façade is “equality”, which means he is not only greedy but also dishonest: “everyone is holy”, he says to Moses and Aaron, “and why do you lift yourselves up above G-d’s community?” (16:3). ‘Lift yourselves up’?? Just a few chapters earlier (chap. 12), Moses was described as the humblest of all people on earth, the one who welcomes other prophets (11:29)! If Korach was a true seeker, Moses would have welcomed him too, but Korach is not interested. In the name of seemingly “beautiful ideals” (consider the atrocities conducted in the previous century in the name of forced equality), he calls for the “well needed” rebellion: enough with the rule of these two! Let’s have “equality”!
Wait what’s the problem? Isn’t that what the Torah teaches anyway?
While the Torah teaches that all people were created in G-d’s image, there are still distinctions. We do not live in a giant pot of cholent, where we all blend into an indistinguishable stew. Rather, each one of us has a unique role and calling; each is a unique piece in a complex puzzle. Korach wants to cancel all that in the name of “openness and sameness”, such noble ideas! If only everybody be “equal” and he would be in charge of that “new world order”…
Although Korach appears as someone who “only objects to Moses” and what’s the big deal, a deeper look reveals that he stands for someone who objects the order in which G-d set the world. This is also why Moses tells him, “let morning come and then G-d will make known…” (16:5). Morning is an indication of clarity (boker from levaker, to criticize, to see clearly, as opposed to erev, from levarev, to mix things up).
The mishmash he creates, is a reflection of who he is. He knows not who he is, what is his true self-worth and how he blends in with the community around him, for his own betterment and those around him. Moses, on the other hand, stands opposite to and apart from this confusion with a humble but clear and strong sense of self and his own mission.
There are questions as to when did this story happen. Did it really happen right here, after the spies, when G-d said, again, that Moses is “it”? Rav Uri Sherki suggests that this happened after Moses broke the Tablets and before he got the new set. This would be a semi-appropriate time to challenge his leadership, and to have him “fall on his face”, as described, and be distressed by the rebellions actions.
Korach, of course, was not alone. Along with him came other trouble makers and impractical idealists. The latter, group of 250 men, came with their incense pans to bring an uncalled-for offering. After a fire came down from heaven, leaving their pans behind, G-d instructs Elzazar, Aaron’s son, to use those pans to cover the altar. If the incident happened before Moses’ getting the second set of the Tablets, this would explain the need to still cover the altar.
It would also leave us with the beautiful idea that it is up to us to decide what to do with our holy vessels, be those our dishes, bodies or skills, all vessels to carry G-d’s light. There will always be a choice whether to bring a foreign fire or build the Place of G-d. We are our own best asset. The better we know ourselves, the better we can use our abilities in the best way.