The Power Struggle

Moses vs. Korah.

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Personal Ambition

Korah 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, Korah seeks to grab it for himself Tradition interprets the opening of the parashah--literally "And Korah took"-to mean that he took himself apart from the people (Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer; Torah Gems, 1998, p. 77). Korah 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, Korah sees the whole story as being about himself and the role he wants to playas a powerful chief priest.

Reading this parashah, I ask: how do I recognize Korah 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 non-profit institute, I find that Korah 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), Korah!"--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 Korah 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.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Rabbi Rachel Cowan

Rabbi Rachel B. Cowan is the Director of the Jewish Life and Values Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York.