Numbers 16: (1) Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — (2) to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. (3) They combined against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
Unlike previous revolts, where the people complained about the hardships of living as refugees in the Sinai, Korah and his followers based their rebellion on ideological grounds, arguing that if the Israelite people are intrinsically holy, then no one person has greater authority than any other. Korah challenged the political leadership claimed by Moses and the hierarchical structure of the priesthood led by Aaron, advocating for some form of a democratization of religious authority.
Although many commentators assume that Korah was seeking power jealously for himself, Korah and his followers never complained about the inequality of their role as Levites or asserted their desire for greater privileges and responsibility. It seems, rather, that Korah wanted to remind Moses and Aaron that Israel “shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) Any Israelite could have been, and still might be, chosen to lead the people if God so desires. In other words, Moses, don’t act so “holier than thou.”
Yet, as biblical scholar Everett Fox points out, Korah’s claim that “all the congregation are holy” is a view that is largely rejected by the Bible, especially by the prophets, because holiness is something attributed only to God. Only through specific actions can the ever-present possibility of holiness be realized. For example, the “Holy Land” as a form of sacred space and the Sabbath as a form of sacred time each must be “hallowed” by specific human behavior, and the “Temple sacrifices may be rejected if not accompanied by genuine repentance and social action.”1 In short, Judaism teaches that it is only through the constant examination of one’s spiritual self, through the practice of tangible rituals, that one can begin to be holy.
Korah rightly observed that each one of us embodies the potential to be a leader within our community. His error was in believing holiness to be an innate quality within us rather than as a constant potential toward which we must strive. He therefore misunderstood Moses’ and Aaron’s roles as spiritual leaders, seeing entitlement instead of responsibility.
May we all seek out opportunities to make our actions holy and, thereby, to take on the sacred task of leading by example.
1 Fox, Everett. “Parashat Korah.” In Learn Torah With... (Torah Aura: 1995)
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