Torah Lessons: What We Are and What We Can Be

06/23/2011 08:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

Editor's note: The following is a commentary on the Torah portion for June 25 (23 Sivan 5771), which is found in Numbers 16:1−18:32 and is known in Hebrew as 'Korach.'

I have a great deal of sympathy for Korah and his rebel faction, despite the fact that they made life difficult for Moses, Aaron and God, and therefore have been vilified by faithful Jews and Christians for two millennia.

Consider the predicament of the Israelites who rise up against their leaders, according to the well-known story in the book of Numbers that Jews read this week in synagogue. Moses' people had just been told that because of the sin of the spies (who reported that the Israelites could not possibly conquer the Promised Land, denied that Land was bounteous in any case, and urged the former slaves to give up their journey and return to Egypt) the entire adult generation to which the spies belong would be sentenced to live out its days wandering the wilderness. None of them would live to see the Promised Land (except Joshua and Caleb, who dissented from the spies' negative report). Nor would they be buried in marked graves that could be visited by their descendants. The prospect was horrific. Small wonder that Korah refused to abide it.

And there was more. Overcome by grief and remorse, the Israelites' first response to the awful news of their punishment had been to change course and prepare to fight the Canaanite tribes whom they had just declared invincible. Moses warns them that without God on their side and in their midst, they will suffer a crushing defeat. They march up to the hill country anyway -- and are dealt a terrible blow by the Amelekites. The episode had proved that there was no going back and, until Moses gave the word, no going forward either.

Desperation, then as now, proves a potent motivation for the overthrow of authority. Lives are put at risk to face down power. The need for hope leads to radical measures that would otherwise not be contemplated.

Korah and the 250 "princes" of the people who sided with him quite simply had nothing to lose and everything to gain from doubting the veracity of the reports that Moses conveyed to them about God's will. Their leader was not infallible. Suppose, the rebels must have thought, that Moses had misunderstood their mysterious deity. Perhaps he had unfairly usurped authority over the rest of the Levite tribe and the people as a whole.

"All the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst," Korah declares. Surely God wanted Israel to conquer the Promised Land and would bless the change of leadership that got them there.

I know -- and biblical commentators stress the point -- that the rebels' motives were mixed. Korah and his family don't much like the tasks assigned them in the Levitical hierarchy. As first cousins to Moses and Aaron, they are close enough to appreciate what they did not have and to grab for it.

Datan and Abiram, the other leaders of the rebellion, are descendants of Reuben, Jacob's first-born son, whose line had been displaced in the power structure at some point by other tribes. These rebels too want a bigger share of whatever goods -- and Good -- are available. If they cannot get to the Promised Land, at least they can try to secure a better wilderness experience. Who wouldn't?

We should note as well, with political philosopher Michael Walzer, that the rebellion proves, once again, that there is no easy transition from slavery to freedom. People used to being told what to do every second of the day are not good at deliberation or decision-making. Israelites who subsisted on meager rations provided by their oppressors turn whining to God and Moses the minute water or food is scarce. The journey from Egypt to Canaan could have been walked in a matter of weeks, but the journey from tyranny to self-rule may take a generation. What the Bible presents as divine decree often plays out as a rule of history. We will soon know the implications of that rule for the chances of achieving democracy in the contemporary Middle East.

The most astonishing passage in this section of the Torah, in my view, describes the reaction of the Israelites after God has proven beyond any doubt that Moses really is God's chosen leader. God makes a "new creation": the earth swallows up the rebels and their families alive. "Next day the whole Israelite community rallied against Moses and Aaron [again!] saying, 'You two have brought death upon the Lord's people.'" Have they learned nothing? Moses demonstrates in a way that no other leader could match that his power rests on divinely given authority -- and still the people will not acquiesce. God again offers to destroy the Israelites and start over with a different people; once more Moses and Aaron plead for mercy and manage to stave off the worst.

"Lo, we perish!" said the Israelites after the plague God sent to punish them has stopped. "We are lost, all of us lost ... Alas we are doomed to perish."

That is true, of course. They will die, and not in the manner or at the time they would have wished. Human beings of every nation and generation are familiar with this problem. It cannot be minimized. The Torah does not often express the terror human beings feel in the face of death as directly as it does in this portion. It rarely captures with such directness the needs and wants that drive politics then and now, and that rulers ignore at their own peril: life, the means that we think will best secure life and the good things that go along with life. Nor does the Torah often advise its readers so explicitly how best to cope with the fact of death, which usually comes as an interruption in our journeys toward personal promised lands.

What is that recommendation?

Live your life surrounded by the demands and rewards of God's eternal sacred order. Be part of a community that share's life's joys and sorrows with you. Be grateful for the gifts you have. Seek forgiveness for the wrongs you commit. Know the difference between holy and profane, and the distinction -- to which that difference points -- between good and evil. Seek to know God, as best a human being can, and imitate God via acts of justice and compassion. Leave the world better than you found it. Trust in God's enduring mercies.

"You must not profane the sacred donations of the Israelites, lest you die," God instructs Moses to tell the Levites. The objective of the Torah's sacred order is life, after all: for priests, for Levites and for all of God's creatures. It must be the aim served by every legitimate regime.
Korah had it wrong: it's not that every Israelite is holy but that every Israelite can be holy. The Bible extends this promise to every human being. It all depends on how we use the gifts in our possession, the days at our disposal, the way that God has marked out with fire and cloud, reason and faith, to guide us through life's wilderness.