When I was younger and a bit of a rebel myself, I admired Korach as the quintessential rebel on the side of the common person. It could be a matter of ageing – or it may be one of learning – that has allowed me to see this parashah through the eyes of our traditional commentators, who demonstrate that Korach is not the first of the great democrats, but rather demagogues. Korach challenges his cousin Moshe for the leadership of the people, getting the masses on side with the charge that “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?” Korach seeks the power of leadership over the people, pretending that he is “just one of them”. He does so in his clever use of language, pandering to the notion of each of us being equally special. Indeed, Korach is partly correct in his claim of the people’s innate holiness; at the same time, he is subverting the core teaching of the Torah of Moshe about our striving for holiness. How is this so?
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.” However, the essence of Torah is that once the soul inhabits the body, it cannot but 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 spark of holiness with which we are born gives us the impetus throughout the days of our lives to strive for holiness, constant growth and improvement.
Korach implies that our holiness is not our potential but our actuality and in this is most deceitful. In reality, all of us need leaders, teachers, and exemplars in order to learn the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Moses is that kind of teacher, a man who himself is a “servant of God”, indeed the most humble of servants, never seeking leadership for power but rather for instruction. In this week’s Torah, Moses reminds us that our daily task is to meditate upon our innate holiness so that we can strive to act with holiness in all our daily encounters.