A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Torah Portion: Korach - Past and Present, No Future.

I have to get off of this cycle of writing about last week's parshah. But not yet. I put an enormous amount of time into reading up on the parshah and various interpretations of its meaning. By the time I finish with that, I've no time to write. I'll find a new way, but in the mean time, some brief thoughts on Parshat Korach.

This torah portion raises some troubling issues for us democracy-loving, everyone-has-a-right-to-their-opinion softies. Here's the Parshah in short form:

Korach: We're all holy - why do you, Moses and Aaron, have special status?
God: I'm going to destroy that guy.
[destroys Korach and his followers]
Israelites: Oh. My. God.

Rabbinic Judaism was very pluralistic. It is a truism to observe that the very fabric of the Talmud is multiplicity of opinions and disagreements which are often left unresolved. Yet, there was a high degree of uniformity and pressure to conform around the margins. That is, if you accepted the basic tenets of the rabbinic game you were entitled to be part of the diversity of opinions within the game.

I reject the notion that other rabbinic authorities' interpretations of law must guide my Jewish life in particular cases. Yes, that makes me a Reform Jew, but there is a vast multitude of Jews from across the denominational lines (so, an erev rav for those into rabbi jokes) that lives precisely the way I do - whether or not people will publicly acknowledge it.

So, what do I do with a Torah portion that clearly demonizes this Korach who challenges Moses' power and Aaron's authority? Interestingly, the Torah goes out of its way to put a credible argument in Korach's mouth. Korach tells Moses
The entire community, all of them are holy [yes, the grammatical mismatch is in the original], and God is among them - why do you hold yourselves over the community of God? (Numbers 16:3) [*see note at bottom of essay]
Anyway, Korach seems to have a good point. As Ibn Ezra points out, they were all at Sinai - aren't they holy? Why do they need an intercessor?

The tradition brings two different verses to compare to Korach's claim that all of them are holy. One is Exodus 19:6, in which God refers to Israel as A kingdom of priests and a holy [kadosh] nation. The Katav Sofer notes that in this appelation the word holy is singular - because it refers to the unity that is achieved in true holiness; Korach, on the other hand says that all of them are holy [kedoshim], using the plural, suggesting that the holiness of each individual is a solitary - and selfish - pursuit.

The second verse is actually a command. In Leviticus 19 God commands You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy. Holiness, God reminds us here, is not a birthright, but an orientation toward the future. You must commit yourself to becoming holy. Korach, however, claims that everyone is already holy - that is, they have no work to do. Korach deems the present moment, the status quo, as 'good enough.'

Seen in this light, Korach is not a reformer at all, but a reactionary who does not want to support the extant power structure because it is headed somewhere. He thinks things are just fine, and that holiness is not found by striving spiritually, a movement physically represented by the journey through the desert to Eretz Yisrael but is instead right here. It is available now, without any work. Even worse, actually, he and his followers think that the real goal is to move backwards, to when life was easy. They said to Moses,

Is it insignificant that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert! And you rule over us? You have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.... (Numbers 16:13-14)

Their moral laziness has turned the moral universe on its head. For them, Egypt is the land flowing with milk and honey. Their goal is to return to a past of spiritual death and physical servitude. Read in this way, Korach is not a revolutionary trying to overturn the status quo. Quite the opposite - he is a self-interested reactionary seeking to halt the moral and spiritual progress of his people.

There are many such reactionaries today - inside and outside of the Jewish world. For such reactionaries, the status quo is sanctified by virtue of its existence. All of them are holy. Such people think that God has blessed the material arrangements of society as they are, and requires no change.

Alternatively, they may seek to restore what they see as the lost moral order of the past. The mythical past that they construct may overlook the cruelty and brutality of the old order, but they will paint it as a paradise - a land flowing with milk and honey.

The alternative is to see holiness as something that is in front of us. That we can do better, we can create a moral order out of the failings of the present.

[*In terms of the discussion about rabbinic authority, it's interesting that Onkelos, the translator of the Torah into Aramaic, translates hold yourselves over as mit-rav-r'vin, the root of which is rav meaning great, but also meaning master or teacher - that is, rabbi.]

1 comment:

  1. Response to Rabbi Josh’s Blog-“Torah Portion: Korach-Past and Present, No Future
    I would not classify myself as democracy loving as Rabbi Josh does under the definition that everyone-has –a-right-to-their-opinion softies. If someone has an opinion that contradicts the word of God, it should not be allowed to present itself as truth, or even the possibility of being truth if it is not.
    Moses and Aaron did not consider themselves Holy. They were amazed that the Lord would even consider them as being worthy to talk to them. But the Lord chose to make them Holy out of their humility and lack of self worth.
    Korach on the other had, not only thought of himself as holy, but claimed that all of Israel was Holy. He did not have an infinite mind like the Lord God Almighty of Israel to be able to make that judgment. Korach had motives that were for self aggrandizement or some other evil motive known only to the God of Israel.
    Rabbi Josh is exploring the truth about the God of Israel, probably because of the many like me who are not as scholarly and maybe some Jews and others have belittled or forced their view down his throat.
    The people of Sinai were grumbling and rebelled against the Lord and did exactly what He commanded them not to do. So how can this be a Holy Nation, either individually or collectively unless it is culled? Maybe Moses and Aaron did not have leadership qualities that satisfied the desires of the Israelites to be pampered or their egos groomed. But the Lord God Almighty knew that they wanted what was best for even those who were considered outcasts from the main stream of the group.
    Rabbi Josh makes a point about Korach being a reactionary, who did not want to support the new power structure which the Lord God Almighty of Israel was building. Maybe he was in bed with the power structure of Egypt and that is why he wanted to go back the Egypt. Only the Lord God Almighty of Israel knows.
    As I read I see that Rabbi Josh correctly points out that Korach is a self-interested reactionary seeking to halt the moral and spiritual progress of his people
    Rabbi Josh makes a wonderful comment when he says “Alternately, they may seek to restore what they see as the lost moral order or the past. The mythical past that they construct may overlook the cruelty and brutality of the old order, gut they will paint it as a paradise, a land flowing with milk and honey.