Channel rebellion into positive ends

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation

By Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

In this week’s parashah, we meet Korach, for whom this parashah is named. He is Moses’ and Aaron’s first cousin and is known as a rebel, as he amassed 250 Israelites to join him in challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron.  

Korach says to Moses and Aaron, “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?” (Num. 16:3). 

Moses responds with humility and, ultimately, it is God who decides Korach’s fate when the earth opens and swallows Korach and his followers.  

Unfortunately, the text doesn’t really delve into what Korach’s rebellion was about beyond a challenge of leadership. Because the text is silent, Korach is painted by the rabbis and commentators as a rebellious leader, a disturber, a demagogue, who the rabbis suggest only wants power for himself. Many suggest that his rebellion follows on the heels of the incident with the spies and that Korach is disgruntled because of the punishment the entire community received of having to die in the wilderness. 

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And yet, Ibn Ezra, one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical commentators and philosophers of the Middle Ages, pushes back, suggesting that maybe this rebellion isn’t as it seems on the surface. Ibn Ezra suggests that Korach’s rebellion doesn’t come after the spies, but rather happens earlier. That means that this episode is written out of order within the text, and Ibn Ezra believes that it should have been placed earlier in Bamidbar, immediately after the episode in which the Levites replaced the first-born males in serving the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  

Making the rebellion, yes, a challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron, but very specifically about the change in service to the Mishkan. Initially, every household (tribe) had direct involvement in the service of the Mishkan, and this change makes it so that only the Levites are involved, essentially meaning that service to the Mishkan is now exclusive, reserved for only one group within the Israelite community. 

Because the text is silent, meaning it doesn’t elaborate, we don’t really know what was behind Korach’s rebellion. But if it is as Ibn Ezra suggests, Korach and his followers supported a system in which each family had access, as servants, to the Mishkan. They revolted against the leaders who had implemented a change that removed power from the people and placed it in the hands of just one family. 

An interesting twist to the plot. A different way to view the text. 

How often do we paint dissenters or rebels as negative, as opposed to looking at all aspects of their argument?  

Sadly, there are some dissenters and rebels who are dangerous and who disrupt the status quo in a negative, brash, destructive way, and then there are those whose disruption is more peaceful, thoughtful and causes us to think as opposed to lash out at the negativity and thereby shutdown any discussion or possibility of change. 

Judaism teaches us to ask questions. We are a tradition that values all opinions, even dissenting ones, as the Talmud records the majority and the minority (or dissenting) opinion, just as does our Supreme Court. When we value all people, all ideas, all abilities, and recognize that things should not be relegated to just an exclusive few, then we can work together to make the world we live in better.

Our tradition teaches that within each of our souls is the presence of the yetzer tov and yetzer ra, the inclination toward good and toward bad. It is our job to keep them in balance, because we need both, as they drive the different parts of ourselves. 

With this in mind, perhaps the story of Korach, through the eyes of Ibn Ezra, challenges us with the balance of good and bad, to keep our own spark of rebellion alive, to nurture it and to see what we might do and what light we might bring into this world.  

It is our choice and our challenge: to rebel and dissent with destruction or to do so with care and with peace. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

Brigitte Rosenberg is Senior Rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.