Korach 5784

The story of Korah’s rebellion has always been a challenging one. It seems that he was unfairly punished for calling out nepotistic trends in the Israelite leadership. Whether or not Korah was correct in his assertion, the message that we seem to be receiving from the Torah is that any challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership resulted in total destruction.The Rabbinic commentators castigate Korah and his followers for dividing the community. They affirmed the Torah’s narrative that any challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership was a sin against God.

Interestingly, in other sections of Jewish sacred literature, we see a different understanding of communal leadership emerge. My bat mitzvah student Charlotte Cohen Kramer, in her d’var Torah last Shabbat Minha, insightfully pointed out that unlike the story of Korah, there are cases in our sacred literature where disagreeing with God is acceptable and even valued! Abraham argues with God to try to save the city of Sodom. Another example is a story found in the Talmud:
A dispute arose around whether an oven was ritually pure or impure. All the rabbis agreed that it was ritually impure except for one. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus ruled that the oven was not impure. The rabbis did not accept his ruling. He pointed to a carob tree and said if the halacha is according to my opinion then the carob tree would uproot itself and walk over to them. The Rabbis said, “Eliezer, a walking tree does not determine halachic legal rulings”. Eliezer then took them all down to a river and said if I’m right the waters of this river will immediately change course. He commanded the waters to change and the waters obeyed. The rabbis told Eliezer, “water changing course on your command is not a valid legal argument no matter which way its flowing.” Eliezer, angry and frustrated finally said, if I am right, if the oven is pure then God will prove it. A divine voice – a bat kol – could be heard from the heavens. It declared, “God said the law is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer”. Rabbi Joshua called out and said, “God you have said it yourself in the Torah, lo bashamayim hee – the Torah is not in the heavens, you have given us agency, step down!” Rabbi Nathan who was present at this encounter years later happened to meet Eliyahu the Prophet and asked him, “What did God say when Rabbi Joshua issued his declaration?” Eliyahu said that God smiled and said “nitzhuni banai, my children have triumphed over me.” (Baba metzia 59b BT).

Korah is punished for challenging Moses, which is perceived by the Rabbis as challenging God’s will, whereas in this Talmudic story God is portrayed as being delighted that the Rabbis are struggling to understand the application of Divinely inspired law even as they reject God’s interference!

Religious tradition is not and has never been a monolithic structure. Our stories, laws and rituals reflect different responses to social and political realities over the course of 2800 years. It is also the case that the Talmudic image in this story of God smiling and stating, “my children have triumphed over me” is not a call to arrogantly banish any sense of Divine connection from our world. It is a call for us to take responsibility for how we study and interpret our religious texts and for the meaning we derive from them, for it is in this way that we continuously and consciously renew our connection to God in our world and in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi George Mordecai

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