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Parashat Hashavua for Korach 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Korach 

Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW

Beware the demagogue

At first reading, Korach may seem like a great hero as he challenges the authority of the status quo and speaks up, in apparently democratic fashion, for the equal rights of all the individuals of the community.  Yet Korach is not the first of the great democrats, but demagogues. Korach criticises Moses for elevating himself above the rest of the community, stating that each individual is equally holy:   “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 yourself above the Lord’s congregation?”  Is Korach not correct? Are we not all equally holy? The premise seems reasonable enough, but upon closer examination we discover that Korach, like other demagogues, hides behind populist language in order to advance his own personal agenda and usurp the leadership from Moses.  

Korach’s rebellion is considered so damaging because in his conflation of ideas from the Torah he actually undermines essential principles of Judaism. Korach misuses language, confusing the notion of being born with a pure soul with “being holy”.   One of the basic principles of Judaism, as iterated in one of our first blessings every morning, is that the soul with which we are born is pure.  Our neshama, our soul, is our divine spark of God, the purest aspect of our being that connects us with all being and Ultimate Being.  Every human being has that aspect of divinity, and in this sense, each of us is “a child of God.”  But while we are created in the image of God, it is only in the image. 

The essence of Torah is that once the soul inhabits the body, it will be buffeted by our desires, our knowledge of “good and bad”, and our free choice between right and wrong.  Try as we might, none of us is perfect, and all of us make mistakes.  The teachings of Moses are all about human fallibility, the need always to strive to do more right and good, with the commensurate requirement to acknowledge when we have gone astray and make appropriate amends for so doing.  The pure soul with which we are born gives us the impetus throughout the days of our lives to strive for holiness, constant growth and improvement.

Unlike Korach who pumps up the children of Israel by telling them, “You areholy”, Moses challenges them by instructing them, “You shallbe holy”.  Holiness is a quality not of birthright but life’s striving.    The rabbis have noted that the rebellion of Korach follows immediately after the teaching of what has become the third paragraph of the Shema, where we are told “Look upon the tzitzitand you will be reminded of all the mitzvot of God and fulfil them, and not be seduced by your heart nor led astray by your eyes.  Youwill remember and observe all My mitzvot and be holy before your God.”  Over and over, the Torah emphasises the obligation strive for holiness throughthe study of Torah and the performance of mitzot. Our equal dignityin the eyes of God derives from creation in God’s image; our potential holinessderives from our actions, the study of Torah and the living of mitzvot . 

Like a typical demagogue, Korach misuses language (itself a violation of Torah), sounding as if he is defending Torah principles that in reality he overturns. This fomenting of rebellion through manipulation of others remains a plague upon humanity to this day, only defeated by being knowledgeable and discerning, and by being consistent in right action.  Korach seeks the power of leadership over the people, pretending that he is “just one of them.” 

But the battle between Moses and Korach is not just about leadership, but about the essence of what it means to be a Jew.  Korach in his play for power, encourages  individuals to be self-satisfied and congratulatory, a static state of being. Moses, by contrast, sets the bar high: “if only all of my people were prophets.”  As a  consummate teacher in word and by example, Moses challenges each of us to grow by daily learning Torah and observing mitzvot.  Ultimately, the message of Moses, the message of Torah, is that holiness is not a birthright by default; it must be taught, learned and lived.   This Shabbat may we learn from Moses, the most humble of servants, and not be led astray by Korach, the personification of demagogues. 

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