Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
The rebellion of Korah and his allies is recounted in this Torah reading. The story is incredible, of course, in its depiction of the miraculous way that the rebels meet their end. The earth swallows them all up! Another miracle, just as wondrous, is the miracle of the flowering of Aaron’s staff. I have written about both these miracles in the past.
This time I wish to highlight another incredible aspect of this story. It is incredible to me that Korah was able to mount a challenge to Moses in the first place! How could his complaints, or the complaints of his partners, Datan and Aviram, gain any traction at all among the people? Could anyone really believe that Moses was not the legitimate leader of the Israelites? Could anyone really believe that it was Moses’ fault that the Israelites have not yet entered the Promised Land?
I believe that, for this story to sound less incredible, one needs to see the rebellion against Moses and Aaron against the backdrop of the terrible collapse of Israelite society that was told in last week’s portion. At the instigation of 10 individuals, overcome with fear and self-doubt, the entire people threw away their faith in God and created a fake narrative, a conspiracy theory that had God plotting Israel’s destruction. The entire people lost their nerve and turned their own experience upside-down.
How hard it must have been, afterwards, for the people to own up to their failure of faith and their betrayal of their relationship with their Divine Redeemer. How could they explain themselves to themselves? Into this terrifying conundrum Korah stepped in with a solution. He deflected the sense of guilt and anger that the people were feeling toward themselves and directed it toward a scapegoat – Moses and his program. It is so much easier for people to blame someone else for their own failures and shortcomings. It is so much more energizing to turn one’s own sense of shame and guilt into rage and resentment toward someone else.
Alas, this ancient Bible story is no more incredible than the story of our own society at this time. Many have chosen to demonize and blame one leader or group for all of America’s failings, so as to avoid dealing with their own sins. The Right has demonized Hillary Clinton and then any other leader (- and if that leader happens to be a woman, that’s great, and a woman of color is the perfect target -) who challenges us to be truthful and compassionate to everyone. And the Left demonizes Donald Trump. In general, in terms of values and the search for solutions to society’s problems, I am mostly in agreement with the Left. But I disagree with laying blame at the feet of our President. His dishonorable, vile record speaks for itself, but he is not the demon. The power that he debases and abuses was handed to him by the people of the United States.
We have come to a stage in our society’s development where arbitrary violence and cruelty against innocent people is regularly and unquestioningly supported by our systems of government and justice. We prefer to attack one figure even though our problems are caused, not by that one’s person’s cruelty or incompetence, but by our national failure. How hard it would be to admit to that! How long would the process take to face the truth and tackle our problems? Would it take 40 years if we tried? Korah knew that he could succeed in selling people lies and absurdities because it would take them off the hook of being honest about themselves. Thankfully God intervened and practically forced the Israelites to keep trying, for 40 years, to become God’s people.
Actually, we should have some understanding for those ancient ancestors of ours. They were only recently freed slaves, after all. But what is the excuse of this great nation, a nation of freedom and abundance for some, built on the slavery and oppression of others, refusing to do the hard work required to face our failings and solve our problems?
Rabbi David Greenstein
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