On Monday, we will celebrate our nation’s 246th birthday with the observance of Independence Day. Barbecues, sunbathing at the beach, and watching fireworks are just some of the activities we may enjoy. While relaxing (or catching up on our work), few of us will think about the origins of this secular holiday: the victory of rebels against a ruling power.
We probably won’t consider that one of the leaders of this rebellion went on to become our nation’s first president, and that some of his fellow rebels became presidents as well. They were honored and respected. Many complimentary books have been written about them. These men who played an important role in the colonial revolution fared a lot better than did Korach and his supporters, the rebels featured in this week’s Torah portion, Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32).
This is a story of a man who questioned authority, a rebel who spoke up for the Levites and their desire to have the same rights and responsibilities as the Kohanim. As students of American history, we have questioned the status quo, in the name of democracy, justice and equality. Many such people bravely led the Labor Movement. A disproportionate number of Jews also worked passionately for the civil rights of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, marched against the Vietnam War, and led the Women’s Liberation Movement. Jews such as Samuel Gompers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Bella Abzug, who gave their hearts and souls to the cause of freedom and justice, are our heroes. Based on this analogy, Korach should have been hailed as a hero of sorts, but he was one who got a ‘raw deal’ from God, and a ‘bad rap’ in the Torah and the commentaries.
Yet, there is another side. In the text, Korach and his followers approach Moses and Aaron to complain that they are not allowed to perform the same duties as the Kohanim (priests). We read: “They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?’” (16:3)
Moses tells Korach and his people to return the next day, when God will announce who is holy. When they return, the ‘. . . earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.’ (16:33). Later in this portion, when people questioned why all Korach and his followers were killed, they, (all 14,700 of them), were afflicted with the plague.
While the deaths of Korach, his followers and those who questioned the deaths is something I struggle with, I also realize that Korach misunderstood his role in his community. He failed to see how his duties as a Levite were as crucial to a holy community as that of a kohen. Likewise, the role of each son and daughter of Israel also was crucial in contributing to the creation and maintenance of a holy community.
Now I imagine that Korach was seeking power and status, rather than seeking to improve the lives of the Israelites. He may have thought that the grass was greener on the other side? Perhaps he believed that Moses and Aaron had an easy time leading the people. Korach did not trust Moses and Aaron, and did not trust God’s faith in them.
Sometimes it is hard to trust our leaders, in the secular and the Jewish worlds. However, it is important for all of us to recognize that we all have roles to play in making our world a holy and just place to live. May we continue the work of those who worked so passionately so that more of us could be free, and may we act in a way that reflects our holiness.
SHABBAT SHALOM AND HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY