Is Korach All Bad?

Only five Torah portions derive their titles from the names of individuals. These five portions are Koach, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas. Three of them are in Numbers, a book that heightens the trials of the Israelites with micro-narratives in the midst of the great historical trek toward mature freedom and the continued attachment of moral demands to the Israelites‘ story. And each of these portions represents a figure whose role in the creation of the nation Israel is quite revolutionary. Each of these figures engage in behaviour that was groundbreaking, and (even in the case of Korach) essential for the development of the Jewish nation. Two of them are rebels whose plots were foiled (Korach and Balak), two of them make the world better for the Jewish people (Pinchas and Jethro), and one of them is designated to save the world. That role went to Noach, the righteous one of his generation.

Korach is clearly a bad guy, as he rebels against the one clear, pure leader of the Jewish people; there is no doubt about history’s judgment of Korach. But the story becomes more important than its simple moral message when we reflect on the leader whom Korach opposes. Moshe, called in innocence to lead the people and flawed by his own physical imperfections and temper, emerges within the larger biblical story as tragic, incomplete, and monumental to the human challenge of leadership. Sometimes those who oppose him or his values are judged, and at other times (as with Zelophehad’s daughters, who influenced change in inheritance law), the rebels guide him in new directions.

Other challenges to authority have better results for the challengers. For example, in I Samuel, the people complain to the prophet that they are tired of his leadership and want a king. In that instance, God urges Samuel’s compliance. Samuel, like Moses, becomes defensive, asking: Have I taken anything from the people? Have I benefited from this awful leadership task? Jethro challenges Moses‘ ability to judge all the people and warns him that eventually he will wear himself out. Moses heeds this challenge as well. A linguistic note is worth mentioning here: Korach accuses Moses and Aaron with the phrase rav lachem (you have gone too far [Numbers 16:3]), while Jethro warns his son-in-law with the phrase ki chaveid mimcha hadavar (for the task is too heavy for you [Exodus 18:18]). The differing approaches of Korach and Jethro demonstrate how we can respond with either jealousy or concern.

Parashat Korach provides us with a unique opportunity to examine the entire concept of challenging authority-a value that Reform Judaism prizes -and to do a little soul searching about how we react to strong leaders. We may not celebrate Korach’s arrogance, but we can certainly celebrate the acknowledgment of the dark side of leadership and follower-ship.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source William Cutter)