This portion (Korach – Numbers 16:1-18:32) tells of the famous challenge of Korach and his camp in their confrontation with Moses and Aaron. In the end they are swallowed up by the earth. But their story lives on and their words remain for us to ponder.
One of the most challenging statements of Korach is his declaration – “All the people are holy and God is among them.” (16:3) Korach claims that, because of this fact, Moses and Aaron have no right to “lord it over” the people. Moses counters by appealing to God to show that his and Aaron’s leadership is God’s choice. This, indeed, happens, but Korach’s fundamental populist declaration is never addressed. Was Korach wrong in stating that we are all holy, with God in our midst?
It would seem that Korach had much to rely on in making these assertions. Didn’t God say that if Israel accepted the Torah we would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (exodus 19:6)? And we did accept the Torah! Didn’t God say that if Israel built a Tabernacle that God would dwell among them (Exodus 25:8)? And they did build such a Tabernacle!
There are many possible answers to these questions. One very basic answer is that all of these proof-texts are not stating a fact – that we are essentially and thoroughly holy “from head to toe,” as the commentator, Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno; a 16th-century Italian rabbi) sardonically puts it. Nor is God’s manifest dwelling among us a permanent given. Rather, these are to be read as hopes, visions and aspirations. This is what we must strive for, not what we already are.
And in order for the people to strive for holiness, they needed Moses, a leader who would constantly goad them forward, rather than a leader like Korach, who would pander to their sense of smugness and entitlement. The danger of proclaiming that we are “all holy, and God is in our midst” is that we are then tempted to believe that we can do no wrong. If these are essential facts, they can never change. But God warns us over and over in the Torah and through the Prophets, that we are very capable of acting in un-holy ways and that God’s Presence will flee from us whenever we betray our mission.
We do not need leaders to tell us that we are holy, no matter what. We need leaders who will criticize us when we stray from the paths of righteousness, and who will challenge us to become holy and to strive to make God’s Presence felt among us, by doing justice, embracing loving-kindness and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:6-8).