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. Korach criticises Moses for elevating himself above the rest of the community, stating that each individual is equally holy. 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 between populist language in order to advance his own agenda and usurp the leadership from Moses.
And what of our holiness? According to the Torah, holiness applies to time (Shabbat and the festivals), space (the Holy of Holies containing the ark, located inside in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), and God Itself.
Holiness does not automatically apply to individual human beings; while we are created in the image of God, it is only an image. Unlike Korach who pumps up the children of Israel by telling them, “You are holy”, Moses challenges them by instructing them, “You shall be holy”. Holiness is a quality for which each of must strive, not something we are born with or into. In Judaism, holiness is achieved through the study of Torah and the living of mitzvot .
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 tzitzit and you will be reminded of all the mitzvot of God and fulfill them, and not be seduced by your heart nor led astray by your eyes.”
Ironically, it has been far easier for Jews to hear the message of Korach than the message of Moses. The catchphrase for some Jews has become “individual autonomy and informed choice.” Individuals tend to make many choices but without much information or knowledge. Individual autonomy and choice are only completely meaningful in the context of a knowledgeable and committed Jewish life.
What kind of observance do any of us have, not just concerning Shabbat, but about the daily commitment of being a Jew? How do we live the mitzvot of shmirat lashon (proper speech), tzedakah (righteous giving of money), gemillut chasidim (deeds of loving kindness, such as visiting the sick and caring for the bereaved) and limmud Torah (the study of Torah which leads to a life of 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.
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. We should celebrate individual autonomy and choice, necessary to be a contemporary, liberal person; however these values are not sufficient for being an engaged Jew, which actually obligates us to learn and to do, as we strive toward holy living.