Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Korach 5782
This week, we have been witness to the shocking details of an unworthy insurrection which resulted in violence, chaos, and misguided actions that were built on a lie. I am of course speaking about this week’s Torah portion, parshat Korach. Sometimes Torah lines it up just right.
In this parsha, our people are still wandering in the wilderness and Korach, a Levite and member of the priesthood – Korach stages a rebellion.
He gathers up 250 men and he approaches Moses and Aaron. He points his little Biblical finger and he says – why have you raised yourselves above all of these good people – gesturing to them as they stand there silently. Do you think you’re better than them? “Rav lachem, sons of Levi” (he means Moses and Aaron, who are also Levites) – you have gone too far, he threatens. As the standoff unfolds, the rebellion is ultimately resolved by an angry God who opens up the earth, which swallows Korach and his followers.
It’s chaos. It’s violent. But it’s also incredibly confusing for modern progressive communities! Isn’t Korach simply speaking truth to power? Asking for something as basic as equality? When I was preparing this week, I found that all the ancient commentaries excoriate Korach outright. He’s seen as clearly on the wrong side of history, deserving of his earthly digestion. But almost every modern writer expressed some level of empathy for the guy. “He’s got chutzpuh” or “but, he had a point!” or “Maybe Korach isn’t so bad after all!”
And honestly, I’ve thought those things, too. I mean, isn’t this a lot like what we do? Gathering our people and calling out injustice? But I’ll tell you, reading Korach this year, in the shadow of the January 6th insurrection hearings – for me – it reads really differently. And maybe all of those ancient commentators who saw through Korach from the start, could – because they had witnessed real insurrection and knew the signs of a traitorous, disingenuous, and dangerous uprising. Something to which we are no longer strangers, either.
And yet. After the past weeks of Supreme Court decisions, the gutting of Roe – which shut down clinics as people sat in their waiting rooms, the weakening of the EPA, the loosening of gun laws, the road paved now for coercive Christian prayer in public schools – perhaps progressives in this country also feel a fierceness bubbling up in us. A need not just to tinker with some laws or acquire some funding, but to change the narrative of our country. To rise up powerfully and rebuild the country we aspire to be. To tell a new story about abundance instead of scarcity, about compassion instead of indifference, and unchecked love instead of free flowing hate. And if this all sounds like unicorns and rainbows, I guess what I want to say is that I don’t think it is. I do think, though, we are taught to believe that it is. But it could be real as easily as what we have now.
I’ve heard some say: let’s just do what the insurrectionists did, what the Trumpers did. Anything at all costs to change the path we are on. But Korach loses. And the Jan 6th insurrection brought the people low and failed. And maybe for really different reasons, but if in our hearts is stirring an uprising, then how do we rise up in a way that is upright? It helps to be able to discern between what is unworthy and worthy. Torah offers us some profound insights this week on this question: What makes Korach’s rebellion so very unworthy?
First, Korach’s rebellion is built on a lie: that Moses and Aaron took power for themselves and elevated themselves over others. We know well from our text that Moses did everything he could to avoid taking on leadership, but Korach needed the people to see Moses as a megalomaniac so that engaging in violence would seem justified. Like January 6th was built on the lie that the election was stolen, to justify its violence.
So what of a holy uprising? It must be built on truth – being curious, to really understand what is true and speaking honestly with one another. Seeking truth can sometimes complicate a story, but leading from truth leads to better solutions and an enduring trust among the people. A holy uprising cannot rely on lies to win because a country whose foundation is fraudulent won’t last.
Second, Korach’s rebellion was meant to divide the people. The opening words of this parsha are notable: Vayikach Korach – and Korach “took himself” to rise up against Moses. Instead of just: he rose up. He took himself. Rashi understands this to mean that he took himself and others out of the community.
Why? Because sowing seeds of division served him by turning the people against each other and creating the tension of opposition. Out of that tension, Korach could play the role of a hero leading an army against an enemy.
A holy uprising? It must be about unifying people. Not capitalizing on people’s fear of one another, or selling a zero-sum worldview in which the reason you have nothing is because they have everything. A holy uprising will need to take seriously weaving people together – sometimes people on the same side of things and eventually even on different sides of things – through a set of shared interests. Safety, peace, dignity, enoughness. Turning people against each other is only in the interest of those who need us to see each other as enemies as they amass power for themselves.
Last night, I relearned about Bacon’s Rebellion in the late 1600’s, where enslaved black people and indentured servant white people in the south had come to rise up in common cause. This terrified plantation owners. So they divided the people and they beat the black folks and they told the white folks – we forgive you, and they gave them some rights and status and threatened them not to talk to the black folks.
And it worked – their solidarity was broken and so began whiteness and white supremacy in this country and the ability to turn allies, who actually wanted the same basic things, against each other. A holy uprising reminds the people, as hard as it will be to do, of a shared journey, and amplifies the truth of common cause.
And third, Korach treated his people as disposable. The commentator Ha’amek Davar writes that Korach enticed the people into his rebellion. As a Levite, he would have known they were likely to die – he just didn’t care. They were tools to him, to use for his own self-aggrandizement. Like those who stormed the Capitol. The president, knowing some of them had weapons and some were likely to die, just didn’t care about them – didn’t even end up pardoning them. Because they were disposable.
In a holy uprising? Well, in this parsha, it’s ultimately Moses and Aaron who begged the people – he’alu l’misaviv mishkan Korach – rise up and distance yourselves from Korach – before punishment was meted out.
A worthy uprising, a movement, a revolution even, takes care of its people. Does not manipulate or mock its people – or rely on unquestioned loyalty. In holy uprising, we’d need to concern ourselves with one another’s well-being. Know one another in order to build something together.
There are many other things we can and need to learn from Korach’s misguided insurrection, if we are to dream up a new day. And none of this amounts to being wishy washy or making us less sad or angry, which some of us might be, or to being less fierce, or less brave, which we know we will need to be.
But that last bit of language from Moses is instructive for us. He’alu, he begged them – rise up! And when Moses asked Korach’s closest advisors to come talk with him, they answered: lo na’aleh! We will not rise up. We will not elevate ourselves. And they wouldn’t – because this insurrection was debased. But last week, we read of the spies who scouted the land of Israel and amidst so much doubt, they said: aloh na’aleh – surely we will rise.
May these be our words, too – as we recover from these difficult weeks and look toward a vision of a country that reflects the values of justice and compassion, as we rise up, may we do so in ways that are true, unifying, and grounded in shared humanity. Amen.