Parashat Korah

Institutionalizing Freedom

The combination of Moses' vision and Korah's organizing skills is an instructive model for successful coalition building in the activist community.

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Korah: Building Coalitions--Towards What?

Korah is a member of Moses' and Aaron's tribe, the Levi'im, the priests of an emerging theocracy. Originally, neither Moses nor anyone else imagined such an extensive priesthood. Ritual responsibilities had always belonged to all first-born sons. The Golden Calf debacle convinced Moses to reorganize the tribes, putting the most trustworthy closest to the center of power-- the Mishkan, or tabernacle, which had yet to be built.

In this reorganization, Korah's family ended up subordinate to Aaron's. Thus, his revolt starts as a squabble among clans of the same tribe.

However, Korah is astute enough to understand exactly how unimportant the grievance of his clan will seem to most of the nation. Seeking a bigger constituency, he first forges an alliance with Datan and Aviram, whose tribe has been steadily losing power. To further expand his power base, he preaches radical equality, publicly opposing new status of the Levi'im, claiming that "all the congregation are holy."

Tradition has judged Korah harshly, as an opportunistic demagogue. Some modern Jews, on the other hand, identify with his stated program of democratizing religion. Whatever his motives, he was a superb coalition-builder, one who knew how to recognize and connect the agendas of various discontented groups among the mixed multitude who escaped Egyptian slavery, and who now sought to retain their new, ill-defined freedom.

Accepting the Torah's account of miraculous intervention in which Korah was swallowed up by the earth as allegorical, we can ask why his revolt failed. One answer is that Korah's coalition-building talents and (perhaps genuine, perhaps rhetorical) inspiring ideals couldn't make up for his, or his followers', lack of organization-building ability. Our ancestors' survival depended on order, which they couldn't create among themselves.

A Clash of Styles, and Missed Opportunities

Moses understood this. Korah didn't. Korah could bring people together. Moses could give them direction. Perhaps Korah's skills, united with Moses' vision, might have served to create unity without imposing a theocracy. Instead, their talents, which might have reinforced each other, worked against each other.

In every generation, those struggling for meaningful social change need both Korah's and Moses' skills, the ability to bring disparate groups together and a vision of how they can function effectively together. Like the generation that came forth from Egypt, the generations that created the mid-20th century's great wave of goal-oriented social action, whose hunger for justice and thirst for freedom exploded from Selma to Stonewall to the Soviet Jewry movement, are a mixed multitude. Different groups bring different, not always compatible, priorities. The bases for unity often remain elusive.

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Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.