Korach is one of the most infamous figures in Jewish history. In this week’s Torah portion, he attempts to start a revolt against Moses, suggesting that Moses and Aaron have raised themselves above the other Israelites when all should be equally holy.
A sort of ritual battle takes place and, in the end, Moses and Aaron are the winners while Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth.
Rabbinic tradition sees this as a fitting punishment, yet I’ve always struggled to understand how Korach’s actions would merit such an awful death. His claim is that all Israelites, not just Moses and Aaron, are holy. That sounds like he’s championing equality.
Even if his claim was incorrect, the reason he spoke up was that he was dissatisfied with his leaders and chose to let them know. Isn’t that exactly what we’re all taught to do?
Judaism began when Abraham dared to smash his father’s idols and question what he had been taught. We are named for Israel, the God wrestler; as his descendants, we are always learning and asking questions, even from the very highest authority.
As Americans, our foundational story is also one of rebellion. The founders of our country declared independence because, like Korach, they believed all people – white men, to be specific, but that’s a sermon for another time – were created equal and had the right to choose their own leaders.
To this day, we teach our children to assert themselves, to be bold leaders, to question authority when it doesn’t ring true. It seems antithetical to who we are as Jews and as Americans to look at Korach as a villain. How can we say that what he did was wrong?
The truth is, it wasn’t wrong. The problem isn’t in what he said. And unlike what many of our parents taught us, it also isn’t about the way he said it. It’s why he said it that caused the problem.
Whether Korach actually believed that all the people were equal, his purpose was not in trying to fight for their equality and do what was best for them. We have no reason to think that he could have done a better job or that the people would have preferred him as their leader. Korach was trying to make himself look good and advance his own interests. He was trying to make Moses and Aaron look bad, not because they deserved it but because he could.
So our tradition doesn’t focus on whether Korach’s question had merit but rather teaches that it’s all about intent.
In our own lives, there are times when we must stand up for our beliefs, when we should encourage each other to rebel. But the benefit must be for the betterment of the community and not ourselves.
We are living in a transformative time in American history, a time in which people are speaking out against injustice with more passion and power than ever before. We are looking deeply at our leadership, at long held beliefs and ideas, and we have the opportunity to truly make some substantial changes for the good.
Yet we always need to keep the lesson of Korach in front of us, to be sure that as we and our leaders speak out, we each truly have the good of the people at heart.
Pirkei Avot reminds us that Korach’s argument, however it may have sounded, was not for the sake of heaven. Let’s ensure that ours always are.
Amy Feder is senior rabbi at Congregation Temple Israel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.