Parashat Korah

Oppression & Action

Vengeance cannot be the response to violence.

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This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold.

-Robert Mugabe

Rebels of The Past

In Zimbabwe in 1979, Robert Mugabe was a symbol of national pride, a revolutionary who helped usher the country to independence. Today, his oppressive politics, his criminally irresponsible economic schemes, and his expropriation of thousands of white-owned farms have led to severe damage to his nation's stability and to his international censure as "the worst kind of racist dictator."

This week's parashah features a cast of similarly problematic characters: Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Like all good revolutionaries, their uprising has some legitimacy. Korah claims that the whole nation is holy and should therefore have access to power (Numbers 16:3). This is, after all, a time-honored articulation of populism.  

God, however, punishes all the rebels. We infer from this that there is, in fact, something insidious, even dangerous, about this uprising. God seems to know something about the inner workings of these revolutionaries. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are too obsessed with their own desire for authority to remember that Moses is, in fact, the person who has been institutionalizing the rule of law and civil society. Israel is in danger of a revolution gone awry, in which the men who lead the charge for freedom become the new source of oppression. Their stated interest in distributing power more broadly appears to be a cover for a darker agenda.

Models of Morality

Similar events unfold all too frequently in our world today. Many communities that have suffered violent oppression for generations undergo a kind of moral meltdown when led to the threshold of self-determination. A lifetime of repression can fill a population with deep-seated hostility and desperation. Models of morality are few and far between on their pathway to autonomy. Violent backlash against both real and perceived threats often spiral out of control. 

For the Israelites, 400 years as Pharaoh's slaves crushed their dignity and made them vulnerable to Korah's uprising, even on the brink of national redemption. Even the miracle at Mount Sinai was not sufficient to restore a sense of humanity and collective responsibility that would both prevent senseless bloody revolt and foster the creation of a just society.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.