Korach is one of five sidrot that derive their titles from individuals, each of whom engaged in actions that were revolutionary and ground breaking at the time. Korach’s claim to fame is that he briefly enters the narrative, challenges Moses, instigates a rebellion, and then disappears (literally) into the earth.
Rambam dates the revolt to the period following the incident of the spies, with the ensuing decree that the people would not enter the Promised Land until the next generation. This must have come as a devastating blow to them and gave way to disillusionment and dissent. In such situations, opportunities present themselves for individuals or small groups to attempt to overthrow the established leadership. In this sedra, we see that the seeds of rebellion, which had already been planted, were just waiting to break out into a full-blown uprising. Korach could see that he had nothing to lose, and knew that rebellion was possible.
Korach’s argument states: “For the entire congregation are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?” On the surface, his argument appears to be quite logical. However, Korach and Moses represent two different perspectives of holiness. Moses teaches that “You shall be holy” is not a promise or a declaration of an existing fact. It represents the possibility of achieving holiness and is something to strive for. In other words, equality of opportunity, a level playing field where everybody has the same chance. When Korach argues that everyone is holy, the word loses its meaning because he is making a case for equality of outcome. In his view, we don’t need to strive for holiness – because it is the status quo and we are already there! We are all holy!
Later in the sedra we read that the sons of Korach were spared their father’s fate. We see that the prophet Samuel was a descendant of Korach. The Korahites were custodians of the tabernacle, and during the time of King David they became the great leaders in choral and instrumental music. Eleven Psalms are attributes to the sons of Korach, and include some of the greatest expressions of faith and praise of God.
So, what can we learn from this sedra? In the aftermath of the rebellion, Aaron takes a stand and ends the plague. The plague in our own time is the unchecked and destructive power that exists today. We have seen this recently in the civil disorder and the tearing down of statues and monuments by those wanting to further their own political agenda. Instead of learning from the past and recognising that there are different perspectives of right and wrong, protesters attempt to efface a story and retell it in a different context. Just as those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults, so we can learn from the lessons of Korach. We cannot now try to edit or censor his actions – to do so would be to be untrue to our history.