Korach 2016 - 5776

Post date: Jul 7, 2016 8:43:41 PM

9 July 2016

This week’s Torah reading (Numbers 16:1-18:32) – parshat Korach – is the story of rebellion. It is the story of a nation divided, taking out anger and frustration on their leaders. Korach, Datan, and Aviram, along with two hundred and fifty other Israelites, become furious with Moses and Aaron and rebel against their leadership. The phrase used to describe their behavior is va’ya’kumu lif’nei moshe. These first two words are loosely translated as, “and they rose up” and “to the face of.”

The second word – lif’nei – is often translated in similar contexts as “before.” However, I think it is relevant to look at the core of the word lif’nei. The prefix – li – can mean to, for, or with. The core of the word is panav – face, and the suffix indicates a possessive with the next word – the face of. So, Korach, Datan, Aviram, and their followers reject Moses’s leadership to his face. It is not a secret, hidden rebellion, but rather a loud, angry, resentful action in front of the entire nation.

After Korach and his followers rebel (in Bamidbar chapter 16), they are swallowed by the earth, as a clear punishment for going against God and God’s chosen leaders. Soon after this, in chapter 17 of Bamidbar, a plague comes down on the Israelites. Moses intercedes to save the people, but the plague nevertheless kills fourteen thousand. While the text does not explicitly note whether the plague is meant as punishment after the actions of Korach, it is described as clearly connected to the events of the previous chapter.

This seems to be an instance of collective punishment. Not only are those who rebel directly taken alive into the depths of the earth, but now a plague has come to kill a huge number of those who, from everything we know, have done nothing to scorn God or Moses.

Was this plague fair? Was it justified to punish the Israelites collectively for the actions of a few rebellious ones?

It may be that our notion of justice on a very individualized level is not entirely representative of human history. There are always ripple effects. There is always collateral damage from harmful acts. Whether we like it or not, we are each ambassadors representing our group(s), whether they be religious, racial, ethnic, academic, professional, familial, or otherwise. What we do becomes associated with the people we are near, whether they like it or not. We are inseparably connected, for good and for bad.

So when a person "gets in the face of" Moses, who represents God’s most honest interlocutor on behalf of the Israelites (freeing them from slavery), and derides him in public, it creates a rift in our social group - a tear in the cohesive fabric of our society.

It is only wishful thinking that allows us to believe that a person's crimes occur in isolation and therefore, can be addressed judicially only to the person. In reality, neither the events leading to an action nor the repercussions from an action rest solely on an individual. Rather, they are shared by individuals, small groups, and larger communities around the person in question. History, patterns of behavior, and societal beliefs set up environments in which we act, and feel the consequences of our actions. We behave not in a vacuum, but rather in a web of complex, interacting systems. Anyone who has studied intergenerational abuse and poverty knows this painfully well.

This appears to be similar to what the Torah teaches here in Parshat Korach. While the children must never be charged with the crimes of the parent, nevertheless they are almost always casualties. Perhaps that is why we make fences around fences of the law - because the closer we come to violating a law, the wider the ripple we will make, and the more innocent people will be caught up.

Perhaps that is why Jewish law has a strong component of community not found in Western law. When a dead body is found between two villages and no murderer is found, each village takes partial responsibility for the consequences of the death. When you find another person's donkey (any possession, really) away from its owner, it is your legal responsibility to care for that donkey and restore it to its owner, even if the owner is your enemy!

These laws from Torah describe an aspect of Judaism that is all about how we create a better society, not just better individuals. The lessons of Sodom, the Flood, Korach, the Plagues of Egypt, are that we cannot completely dissociate the actions of one person from the society.

By the same token, we run the very clear risk of prejudice and discrimination when we condemn an entire group for the actions of some of its members. This is the delicate balance we must find. As a member of any group, we must recognize, marginalize, and condemn those members who are doing harmful things. As a non-member, we must refrain from the base bigotry of accusing the group for the actions of the individual.

How are we able to achieve this balance? We can see from the lessons in Parshat Korach that a community that does not marginalize the r’sha’yim (wicked ones, as Korach and his followers are called) that a plague most certainly will befall society as a whole.

The last section of this week’s parsha discusses tithing, redeeming a firstborn, and the Levites’ living off of the sacrifices brought to the Temple. The system established is that all of the tribes will be given land, and these lands will be inherited by future generations of those tribes. However, the Levites will be given no land. Instead, they will work in the Temple and be supported by the tithes and offerings brought from each of the other tribes. This system is set up right after the rebellion of Korach, and it is a system of sacrifice. Not sacrifice in the biblical sense of killing an animal, but rather sacrifice in the sense of giving up. The Levites give up the chance at having land of their own – they sacrifice in order to act as the priestly class for all the Israelites.

Similarly, the rest of the tribes sacrifice – they give up their first, precious fruits and livestock to the Temple. After months of hard work, patience, and prayer, they will take what they have been waiting for all this time and give it up – the beautiful ripe fruits, the healthy young calves.

So perhaps this is the answer. In order to have a balanced society – where we can both set apart and punish those who harm, as well as honor and respect individuals without prejudice, we must be willing to sacrifice. We must be able to give up – not everything – but something tangible that we may have wanted for generations or worked for over many months. For some, it is a sacrifice of time – time to volunteer, away from our families and friends. Maybe this is sacrificing money – money that can help us in many ways, but can help others even more. Maybe it is sacrificing our comforts, or luxuries.

“Sacrifice”, after all, is at its root, “sacred”. To sacrifice something is to make it sacred, and in doing so, make ourselves sacred.

By sacrificing, we show that our individual needs can be balanced with the needs of others around us, and needs of society as a whole. This is not how Korach and his followers behaved. They became infuriated at Moses and Aaron for being the chosen leaders, and jealous that they were not given some of this power. Sacrificing some of what we want, at some times, can help us remember that our own individual desires may, at times, get in the way of the just and compassionate world we would like for our future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher