Minutes of Torah
This week, the theme of rebellion that we have encountered in the Book of Numbers continues. Korach leads some of his fellow Levites, some Reubenites, and a large number of chieftains to rise up against Moses, concluding with:
“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?
For those of us who value democracy and equal representation, their complaint seems quite fair. All of Israel entered the covenant at Sinai, where we were told we would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If all of us are holy, then why do Moses and Aaron get to enjoy a higher position and more intimacy with the Divine? Why should Moses and Aaron have more holiness than everyone else?
Of course, we know, the ancient Priestly/Levitical cult, the Kohanim/Levi’im, was not an open or democratic system. Even if you possessed talents or skills that you could contribute to the priesthood or Levite circle, you couldn’t apply for or be invited into these special roles unless you are an able-bodied male born into the right family or tribe.
But it doesn’t seem that Korach and his followers are complaining about the entry rules into the priestly tribes. Rather, they seem to be saying that since everyone is holy, why should anyone have a specialized role vis-a-vis the holy? Korach dares to argue that since everybody in the community is holy, the Kohanim don’t deserve a monopoly on their priestly role.
Torah seems to be conveying the following message: that there is a group of religious elders that are superior to the rest of us. But fortunately, that is not the message that Judaism conveys. To that end, I’d like to share with you a story from the Talmud.
A question had arisen that no one could answer, and the rabbis went to consult with Hillel. After he solved the problem, however, he came up with up an even more difficult question that neither he nor any of the other rabbis could answer. Hillel acknowledged that he once learned this law, and forgot it, but not to worry as they could:
“leave it to the people of Israel alone; if they are not prophets they are the children of prophets.”
In other words, let’s see what the Jewish people do about this problem, and, whatever they do, it will be OK.
The next day, the rabbis went to the Temple courtyard to observe how the people responded to the hypothetical question the rabbis had debated the day before, and saw they were responding exactly as Hillel had learned it! When unable to come up with the answer to a question, Hillel says we can rely on what the people remember and do as being legitimate — the people, with their customs and actions, decide what the answer is, not through intellectual argument, but by the way they behave.
This approach would seem to be in line with Korach: we are all in this together. The Jewish people, and not only their Rabbis, are a legitimate source for what is the correct Jewish thing to do. Therefore, let them be, let them behave in the way which they believe is authentically and correctly Jewish, because, if that’s how they behave, it is very likely to be authentic.
The question is, how do we reconcile this populist attitude with the preference for a top-down Judaism we see in our parashah, which privileges the leadership of Moses and Aaron and rejects Korach’s claim that “the entire congregation is holy”?
Perhaps one explanation might be this: Korach, in his attack on the leadership of Moses and Aaron, claims that “the entire congregation is holy”. His claim of equality was that as we are all equal to Moses, we are all equally touched by and in touch with the divine. This egalitarianism of arrogance is false, and unacceptable — not everyone is a Moses, not everyone has really achieved his intellectual and spiritual heights.
Hillel’s point, on the other hand, is that although the average Jew may not be a prophet, all Jews are the children of prophets, i.e., heirs to a national tradition, part of a shared cultural, intellectual, and ethical heritage. And when acting from a sense of equality based on our shared past and common destiny, all Jews are, in fact, equal, and all Jews, as part of the ongoing Jewish project, have an equal voice in determining its contours and direction.