Commentary on Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1 - 18:32
What a dramatic power struggle we have just witnessed in this Torah portion! A cabal of influential rebels tries to take power from Moses, daring to risk their lives to promote their own self-interest over the sacred destiny of their people. Their downfall is stark and dreadful.
Yet, the Torah teaches, even though Korach dies, his descendants live on. We certainly see them today: cynical political, religious and communal leaders cloaking self-interest in the language of democracy, nationalism or God. In wielding power in such shortsighted ways, these modern-day rebels present an even greater threat to God’s creation than Korach did to Moses’ leadership. This Torah portion urges us to be vigilant, lest such persons undermine the communities that we are called to create and sustain.
But it is not only public leaders who play Korach’s role today. We, too, live with an ongoing conflict between an “inner Moses” and an “inner Korach” between humility and arrogance, between selflessness and selfishness. And until we can hear the difference between those two voices, our actions will not be effective in countering the power of the Korachs at large in the world. We need to be clear when it is the voice of our needy, small-minded self that advises us to act, or when it is the wise voice that speaks from our deepest and best values and truth. We need a practice of reflection to discern which voice is guiding us. Happily, we can also find some guidance in this Torah portion.
A Servant of God
In our tradition Moses is seen as humility embodied — the true servant of God. The Sfas Emes, a 19th-century Hasidic master, understood Moses as being so far from pride in his bearing that people could not fathom his modesty. In Parashat Korach, we see Moses in that place of humility, able to lead because he loves God and the Israelites with every fiber of his being, despite his constant frustration with both of them. Twice he falls on his face — before Korach and before God — trying to stop the rebellion and to prevent God from destroying the persistently disobedient Israelites.
Moses acts from the deep understanding that Korash’s challenge has nothing to do with him; it is a challenge to God. He knows himself to be the vessel through which God’s vision for the Israelites could become manifest, not the man who has to prove himself superior to an insolent competitor. Throughout the journeys of the Israelites, we see Moses grow as a spiritual leader: from a reluctant young man who struggles with anger and lack of self-confidence to become the quintessential leader-one who is able to overcome his own ego in order to serve a much greater cause. Finally, he becomes one who accepts God’s decision that he will die-and that he will die outside the land of Israel.
Korach is different. His challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, not love of God or of the Israelites. Unlike Moses, who hesitated to take the leadership that God offered, Korach seeks to grab it for himself Tradition interprets the opening of the portion — literally “And Korach took” — to mean that he took himself apart from the people (Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer; Torah Gems, 1998, p. 77). Korach would have done nothing to stop God from destroying the Israelites, for he would have loved to be the sire of a whole new people. Unlike Moses, Korach sees the whole story as being about himself and the role he wants to playas a powerful chief priest.
Reading this Torah portion, I ask: How do I recognize Korach in my own thoughts and actions, and how do I liberate the consciousness that Moses had? In my job as the director of a wonderful nonprofit institute, I find that Korach seems to pop up most frequently when I am afraid. What if I don’t succeed at raising enough money? What if I don’t succeed at making out work known? What if I am not good enough? What if this work fails because of my incompetence? In such moments of doubt, I make myself the central actor on stage, starring in the “The Tragedy of Rachel.” In that place of fear, I separate myself from the community doing the work, and I clutch for some way to feel in control. I can’t see the whole. There is no way to make wise decisions.
But if I make time, like Moses, to fall on my face to breathe and reflect — I can hear the “I” shouting out in all its grandiosity. I reply, “Rav l’kha (Enough of this), Korach!” — acknowledging that once again I have made the story about me and my fears. In that space, Moses can emerge and call me back to humility — to the recognition that I, like everybody else, am but a bit player on this stage. I can rekindle the trust that I have in the wisdom of the unfolding of the work and in the wisdom of my colleagues to figure out what will flow from this moment.
The Korach in all of us gets triggered by different emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, greed or doubt. When this happens, we lose sight of the whole and become caught up in our own inner dramas. Our needs eclipse the needs of others.
Moses’ path— and ours— is to move from the narrow place of doubt, fear, anger, and jealousy to an expansive covenanted life in a community of mutual care and responsibility. In such a community, all people are holy. They — we— can remind each other that what matters is not the ambition of the self, but the work of helping to make the soul, the home, the office, and the world a safer, wiser, more compassionate place for all. Such a perspective helps each of us to come closer to being a humble servant of God.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.