In this week’s parsha, we are in the middle of what biblical scholar Everett Fox calls the “Rebellion Chronicles.” It may be a stretch to call previous grumbling and complaining about food a rebellion. And last week’s report of the land of Canaan certainly played on fears and insecurity of the Israelites.
Neither rises to the level of open resistance as does this opening narrative. It exhibits all the classic signs of rebellion — a power play, political struggle, a significant group of followers, a strong, even egotistical personality.
It begins as Korach, a Levite, confronts his cousin Moses and questions his leadership. He cleverly puts forward the proposition that since Israel is to be holy nation, all of them individually are just as qualified as Moses to lead. This turns the original collective ideal of a holy people on its head that rather than working toward a common goal, that it justifies an individual’s qualities and rights.
In making such a case in this way, Korach raises doubts about his own motivation.
In the previous parsha, G-d commands Moses Sh’lach l’cha. Sh’lach (send) is the Hebrew command verbal form and the extra l’cha emphasizes the command. So it could be interpreted as “you yourself send.” Just so in the parsha Lech L’cha, could be a command for Abraham to “you go yourself.”
But the Torah portion begins Vayikach Korach, not in the word form above because Korach was not commanded. So it is often translated as Korach “betook himself.” The phrase usually has the footnote, “Hebrew ambiguous.” The ambiguous Hebrew is a reflection of the ambiguous and questionable motivations of Korach.
The rebellion of Korach and his followers could be interpreted many ways by the rabbis and commentators. But rather than outright condemnation, Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers holds up the story as an object lesson on how to judge differences of opinion in the community.
“Every dispute which is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure. Any controversy which is not motivated for sake of Heaven, in the end will not endure. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven — those between the schools of Hillel and Shamai. What is considered a dispute against Heaven — the one by Korach and his band.”
Korach was motivated by self interest and so did not leave anything of worth. The arguments between Rabbis Hillel and Shamai became the basis of Jewish thought and law because they respected each other’s opinion and their goal was understanding and elevating Torah.
Enduring controversy. You can interpret this to mean never ending disputes or something we must suffer through on a regular basis. But in a Scientific American article, research has shown being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder working. Conflict is in human nature. There’s a rabbinical saying that just as our faces differ so too do our opinions.
We can find the positive as in Pirkei Avot, that working toward larger goals is the way to live day-by-day and leave a lasting legacy. PJC
Cantor Henry Shapiro is the cantor at Parkway Jewish Center. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinical Association