Tuesday, February 7, 2023 -
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For the longest time I was confused when I read this week’s Torah portion, “Korach.” As I got older and read the text more closely, I understood why. Within one time frame, the text conflates two conflicts. It is not the one famous conflict of Korach that takes place; it is in fact two separate rebellions, with a similar theme and dramatic conclusion, amalgamated as one.

The first rebellion is that of Korach and his followers, as they are known, and it is against both Moses and Aaron. The nature of Korach’s provocation is religious, motivated by a desire for higher priestly privileges.

Korach’s claim is mounted with common sense, with striking and evocative imagery: with a tallis entirely turquoise versus a tallis whose tassles alone are turquoise; with Torah scrolls filling a room versus a small, slanted mezuzzah on the doorway.

The second rebellion is that of the Reubenites Datan and Aviram, directed at Moses, for political power.

The conflicts are different but related. Both Korach’s faction as well as Datan and Aviram’s, with separate and distinct motivations, attempt some kind of popular revolution of the people, a coup d’etat. This is what unifies them.

The story is a mesh of both conflicts and it is hard to tease out the sequence and motivation of each separate group. What better way to illustrate a conflict!

Conflict is not a clean, crisp story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Hence the mesh and collision of both struggles.

The Korach story also illustrates how conflict spreads, how conflict breeds conflict. From a small, initial source of friction, hostilities can spiral and escalate in a way that is nearly impossible to reverse. Once the flame of conflict is ignited, it grows into raging fires of destruction.

For Korach and his followers, whose supposed motivation is religious, the conflict ends literally in a trial by fire at the central religious location in the desert — the Tent of Assembly, the dwelling place of the Divine. Korach and Co.’s offering of burning incense on the firepans is rejected.

For Datan and Aviram, who were representing a more popular and political uprising against Moses, their test takes place at the threshold of their homes, in the more inner sanctuary of ordinary life and family, the dwelling place of the people.

Moses, raised away from his brothers’ pain of slavery, of blood, sweat and tears, in the seclusion and privilege of Pharaoh’s palace, is more the outsider, unable to speak the language of his people, using Aaron as his medium to relate to the people.

Korach, on the other hand, is a voice for the people, speaking the language of the masses and rallying their support, conveying that he is one of them.

Perhaps Korach is effective in challenging the details of religious service because Moses did not suffer in Egypt with the people. Perhaps somewhere deep down inside, the people in the desert resent Moses and G-d, Who prescribes all the crossing of the t’s and dotting of the i’s of halachic detail. Korach and the people share a common experience and memory of pain that Moses does not.

Who is Korach? His father, Yizhar is Amram, Moshe’s father’s younger brother. Korach is Moses’ first cousin. Korach lived through the harrowing hardships of slavery and, by rights, thinks he is qualified for certain priestly privileges. But G-d passed him over for Moses and Aaron.

Who are Datan and Aviram? They are from the tribe of Reuben, the eldest of Jacob, thinking they have the rights of a first born coming to them. But these rights were stripped from Reuben, whose rights as the first born were transferred to a different tribe. Reuben is replaced. Supplanted.

Both Korach and Reuben are fighting for what they believe is coming to them and trying to regain something from their past. They are coping with the bitter pain of being  passed over. They are, painfully and sadly, unable to accept the destiny of Moses and Aaron being chosen leaders of the Jewish people.

For Reubenites Datan and Aviram and their faction, the story ends here. Where they once tried to rise, they are instead swallowed up and lowered into the earth.

For Korach’s faction, with their misplaced religious zeal and desire for religious power, they are consumed by the precise medium through which they desired to command.

Yet, for Korach, the story ends in song. At the last minute, his children — going against the natural way of things with parents and children — and tear themselves away from their father and his contentiousness. Korach’s children go on to accept their role as Levites, without complaint, lifting their voices in songs of the Psalms.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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