On the face of it, the argument is pure politics. It's about power and access (to God).
But in the midrash, Korach's challenge is described differently. Korach is identified as a great sage! But he has an interesting relationship with his own "rabbi", namely Moshe. So for instance, Moshe teaches the community the concept of tzitzit. On the corners of each garment, the Jews are to put fringes, and one thread is to be a particular kind of blue. The tzitzit, Torah explains, are supposed to serve as a reminder to follow God rather than the temptations of the eyes. (The blue thread eventually went out of practice because the dye was too expensive and it would have been out of reach of the average Jew.)
Upon learning the concept, Korach comes to Moshe and asks: How about a tallit that is already entirely blue? Wouldn't that be exempt from the requirement of tzitzit? How about four threads with the special blue somewhere in the tallit? Would that be good enough?
This gets Korach thinking. From the last paragraph of the Shma to the first -- mezuzah. A couple short passages from Torah at the entrance of my house. Korach asks Moshe: Suppose I have a house full of sacred books. Would I really need a mezuzah on my front door? How about if I keep a whole Torah scroll in there? Surely that's at least as good as a little box with two little sections of Torah crammed in.
This midrash recasts the argument that begins the Torah reading. It's about who gets to say what Torah means, what God's instructions are all about. Does the rabbi or the religious leadership have a monopoly on that? Doesn't the student or community member have a voice in how to apply Torah in her life?
I've been thinking about this midrash this week in light of my first anniversary next week with Temple Beth Abraham. How should Torah be shared between a rabbi and a congregation?
I give Korach his due. He is enthusiastic and wants to be empowered. He goes past the level of mere obedience, toward real understanding. He relates to the commandments in depth, in terms of their concepts and reasons. Those are what Korach finds meaningful. When he finds that meaning, Korach wants to go the extra mile to apply the concepts in his life. He's ready to adapt Jewish ritual creatively if the traditions don't do it for him as received.
From this rabbi's perspective, that sounds like an ideal Jew!
According to the Torah, Moshe doesn't reject Korach's approach right away. He falls on his face -- in awe, I would say, of Korach's commitment and the sense of holiness that he expresses.
It's true that Moshe is about halacha, the standard way of translating Jewish values into life. But he's thinking about how to respond.
Korach reads Moshe's momentary silence differently. As a lack of responsiveness. So he immediately makes Moshe (and Aharon) the issue and attacks them, and it ends up being about egos rather than Torah. Instead of creative tension -- between halacha and personal expression -- there is personal tension and conflict. Their relationship devolves and dissolves, tragically. To say the least -- Korach gets swallowed up by the earth.
From my reflections on this episode, I take away a few things about my role as a rabbi.
- One is to value and cheer Jewish commitment on the part of others, in any form. My own example and choices will be traditional. Shabbat, prayer, kashrut, holidays (not to mention Torah study and acts of chesed). But that doesn't prevent me from being responsive when someone comes, like Korach in the midrash, with a different Jewish take on an idea or a practice. I'm far more worried about Jewish apathy. If someone has a different idea about prayer or Shabbat, for instance, I'm excited that they want to share it. I'm eager to talk about how you would integrate that into your life, or how we could explore it in the shul.
- One important role I have is to be a docent of Jewish experiences and teachings. I heard this metaphor at a conference and I love it. Judaism has always been a vast gallery (not a museum!). A docent makes selections. What to present from among the infinite beauties of the collection. So through my sermons, the courses I choose to teach, the links I post, etc. I can point you where I think there is something particularly valuable for you to think about or do. Korach could think his thoughts about mezuzah and tzitzit because Moshe pointed those areas out, showed him where to look and find riches.
- In educational work, the phrase is "be a guide on the side, not (only) a sage on the stage." A guide or coach is accepting, supporting, encouraging, empowering. Also challenging and questioning, in the context of a real relationship. Korach came with ideas, but didn't let Moshe come back with questions. "Life coach" sounds a bit grandiose. "Personal Jewish trainer", some call it. I hope my teaching, on the stage or in smaller settings, is not only informative but helps you grow.
- Finally, it's not about me, it's about Torah and mitzvot. Korach and Moshe ended up locked in a battle of egos, and no good can come of that. In the end what I do is measured entirely by the mitzvot we collectively perform as a community. Whatever I contribute to that, however I can, that's what matters.