Parashat Korah

Oppression & Action

Vengeance cannot be the response to violence.

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The tragedy for Zimbabwe is what's behind Robert Mugabe's oppression. As it was for the Israelites, the people of Zimbabwe have a Pharaoh. In fact, for many African nations moving toward independence, their Pharaoh is the legacy of European colonialism. Enslavement, the stripping of national resources, and the intentional establishment of boundaries and borders that disrupted age-old relationships among ethnic groups gives rise to modern day Korahs, Dathans, and Abirams. Korah preaches democracy and equal access, Dathan and Abiram demand accountable governance. Yet all three eventually plunge Israel into chaos and bloodshed.  

The Danger of Being a Victim

The Torah reminds us time and again, "Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)." Perhaps the urgency here is not simply to empathize with victims of oppression, but to acknowledge that having been victims we are at greater risk of repeating oppressive behaviors. Because we were oppressed, we may be more likely to take up to the tools of the oppressor even as we struggle for freedom. The injunction here is to vigilantly guard against becoming the oppressor.

This difficult lesson is not easily learned, especially when children are starving, when women are being raped, and when violent uprising seems the only alternative to ceaseless suffering. 

But the real alternative to this cycle of violence and oppression is the deliberate and intentional building of civil society. Moses exemplifies this when he teaches the people in Deuteronomy that every king of Israel must write his own copy of the king's scroll and keep it with him at all times. The scroll contains the law of the land, as well as laws which specifically restrict how much money, how many wives, and how much of a military he may amass (Deuteronomy 17:16). The new king can only act as king when rooted in the laws of civil society.

A Delicate Balance

Parashat Korah teaches that we must exercise both wisdom and serious restraint in how we become involved in the struggles of developing nations. To advocate, support, or engage in violent intervention is to continue the cycle of violence and terror. Worse, propping up client governments that serve only our own interests furthers corruption and instability.

Instead, we must place worldwide focus on the restoration of dignity and equality. We must end oppression. We do this by initiating children not into militias, but into education. We do this by leading emerging governments not into swift vengeance, but into the vocabulary of civil 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.