Parashat Korach: Moses and Korach, Without and Within

Parashat Korach: Moses and Korach, Without and Within

(Delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on Friday, July 1, 2022)


In this week’s reading, we witness three dramatic power struggles that have national repercussions! Korach, a fellow Levite, leads a struggle against Moses’ religious authority. Datan and Aviram, descendents of Jacob’s first-born Reuben, push back against Moses’ civic authority. Finally, there is a group of 250 leaders, who seem to constitute of mob, a mob perhaps inspired by the rhetoric of Korach or of Datan and Aviram. Once mobs are unleashed, they form another kind of danger. So, we have three different cabals of influential rebels trying to take power from Moses, daring to risk jail time, and much of their lives, to promote their own self-interest over the sacred destiny of their people. In this story, Moses, G!d’s elected, legitimate leader, comes out unscathed, at least as history remembers events. As to the insurrectionists, their downfall is stark and dreadful.

Yet, the Torah teaches, even though Korach, symbol of all three rebellions, dies, his descendants live on. We certainly see them today: cynical political, religious and communal leaders cloaking self-interest in the language of democracy, nationalism or God. I will leave it to you to make any kind of parallel with events, groups, and leaders today. It is quite probable that any such parallels can find some sort of support from a reading of the text. Let us just say that this Torah portion urges us to be vigilant, lest such persons and cabals undermine the communities that we are called to create and sustain.

Instead I want to focus on another matter, because it is not only public leaders who play Korach’s role today. We ourselves live with an ongoing conflict between an “inner Moses” and an “inner Korach,” between humility and arrogance, between selflessness and selfishness. And, until we can hear and manage the difference between those two voices, our actions will not be effective in countering the power of the Korachs at large in the world. We need to be clear when it is the voice of our needy, small-minded self that advises us to act, and when it is the wise voice that speaks from our deepest and best values and truth. We need a practice of reflection to discern which voice is guiding us. This is not as easy as it sounds, but, fortunately, we can also find some guidance from this week’s Torah reading.

In our tradition Moses is seen as humility embodied—a true servant of G!d. The Chassidic master known as Sfat Emet,[1] understood Moses as being so far from pride in his bearing that people could not fathom his modesty. In Parashat Korach, we see Moses in that place of humility, able to lead because he loves G!d and the Israelites with every fiber of his being, despite his constant frustration–with both of them. Twice he falls on his face—once before Korach when trying to stop the rebellion and once before G!d when trying to stop G!d from destroying the Israelites.

Moses acts from the deep understanding that Korach’s challenge has nothing to do with him; it is a challenge to G!d. He knows himself to be the vessel through which G!d’s vision for the Israelites could become manifest, not the man who has to prove himself superior to an insolent competitor. Throughout the journeys of the Israelites, we see Moses grow as a spiritual leader: from a reluctant young man who himself struggles with anger and lack of self-confidence to become the quintessential leader, one who is able to overcome his own ego in order to serve a much greater cause. Finally, he becomes one who accepts G!d’s decision that he will die–and die outside the land of Israel.

Korach presents himself differently. His challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, not love of G!d or of the Israelites. Unlike Moses, who hesitated to take the leadership that G!d offered, Korach seeks to grab it for himself. Rashi,[2] Nachmanides,[3] and other commentators interpret the opening phrase of the Torah portion—vayikach Korash, “Korach took”—to mean that he took himself apart from the people. Korach would have done nothing to stop G!d from destroying the Israelites, for his goal was not to help people but become their supreme leader. Unlike Moses, Korach sees the whole story as being about himself.

Reading this Torah portion, we might each ask: How do I recognize Korach in my own thoughts and actions, and how do I liberate the consciousness that Moses had? In my life, I find that Korach seems to pop up most frequently when I am afraid. What if I don’t inspire? What if I don’t succeed at something? What if I am not good enough? What if I can’t pay my bills? Sometimes in moments of doubt, I do make myself the central actor, starring in “The Tragedy of J.B.,” a work that perhaps only the master Greek tragedian Aeschylus[4] could have successfully written! In that place of fear, I separate myself from the community doing the work, and I clutch for some way to feel in control. However, I can’t see the whole. When in this place of Korach, I cannot make wise decisions.

But if I make time, like Moses, to fall on my face to breathe and reflect—I can hear the “I” shouting out in all its grandiosity. I reply, “Rav l’cha–Enough of this, Korach!” Thus I acknowledge that once again I have made the story about me and my fears. Yet in that space, Moses can emerge and call me back to humility—to the recognition that I, like everybody else, am but a bit player on this stage. I can rekindle the trust that I have in the wisdom of the unfolding of the work and in the wisdom of my colleagues, friends, and family, to remind me that a sunrise, at some point, will follow, and overtake, the sunset. Then, once again, I can focus on my mission, not my mess; my purpose, not my pettiness.

The Korach in all of us gets triggered by different emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, greed, or doubt. When this happens, we lose sight of the whole and become caught up in our own inner dramas. Our needs eclipse the needs of others.

Moses’ path—and ours—is to move from the narrow place of doubt, fear, anger, or jealousy to an expansive covenantal life in a community of mutual care and responsibility. In such a community, all people are holy. They—we—can remind each other that what matters is not the ambition of the self, but the work of helping to make the soul, the home, the office, and the world a safer, wiser, more compassionate place for all. Such a perspective helps each of us to come closer to being a humble servant of G!d.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) was known as the S’fat Emet, because it was the title of his most noted work. He was a Hasidic rabbi in Kalwaria, known in Yiddish as Ger.

[2] Rashi (1040-1105) is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, a French rabbi whose grand commentary on the Bible remains the starting point for all students of Tanakh, of whatever level.

[3] Nachmanides (1190-1270), also known as Ramban, or Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, whose most well-known work is his commentary on the Bible, which often cites and critiques Rashi’s opinion. Yet here they both agree.

[4] Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 455 B.C.E.) is the father of tragedy and one of the great figures in the history of theater. Only seven of his estimated 70-90 plays have survived.

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