Korach: What is the message for our nation today?

When I signed up to write on Parashat Korach for the TJP it was months ago, and I had no idea what would be happening in the world. A typical d’var Torah on Parashat Korach speaks to the illegitimacy of Korach’s rebellion. It usually explores themes of Korach not having the community’s best interests at heart or rebelling against God’s plan. This year those messages feel wrong considering the protests that have swept our nation.

Let’s summarize the details of the parasha. Korach and his constituents complain to Moses and Aaron saying, “You have gone too far. All the community is holy, and God is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” In other words, Korach’s complaint is that Moses and Aaron use their privilege to put themselves above the community. 

When I study this story with students, they often want to know what is so wrong with Korach’s complaint. This is not surprising considering that most of my students are American. American culture supports the ideal of free speech. If we think something is unfair, we are empowered to assemble in public and speak out against it. What is so wrong about Korach’s protest? 

In a typical year I would bring one of the traditional commentaries to answer that question. Onkelos says Korach separated himself from the community and rebelled only to promote his self-interests. Hizkuni says Korach and his faction orchestrated an uprising. His goal was never to talk and work things out. From the start he wanted chaos and rebellion. Sforno says Korach and his factions assembled to incite the people. The plan was to intimidate Moses and Aaron not to work with them to improve the situation. 

In a typical year, these messages appeal to me. I say something about considering the needs of the community and not just our own needs. Sometimes, I focus on the content of the message having merit, but I criticize the delivery. I talk about the need to communicate with each other and work out our differences rather than lead rebellions. Those are all worthy messages to extrapolate from this parasha, but this year, I do not think that is what God is trying to teach us. What do you do when privilege is real, and communications have failed?

Maybe the protests we are experiencing are not like Korach’s rebellion. Fast-forward a few weeks to Parashat Pinchas when the Daughters of Zelophehad come forward to Moses with their complaint. They too object to the way life is in the community. They too say the system is flawed because men are privileged to inherit while women are not. God heard their case and changed the law to protect the vulnerable.

Maybe God learned something from his experience with Korach. God quashes that rebellion with the ground swallowing up the rebels and with a plague. When Korach protested the injustice of the system God quelled his voice. Later, when the women complain about injustice God listens and changes the law. Perhaps, we are meant to learn from the change in God’s response. May we all be blessed despite our fears and objections to see what is at the heart of the protests, to listen and to change systems of injustice.

Rabbi Elana Zelony serves Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson. She is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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