This week we read the story of Korach and his followers, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. When Korach began the rebellion against Moses, he stood up and said: “all the house of Israel is holy, every one of them, what is it that makes you think you are better than us and can lead us?”. These sentiments seem quite reasonable. Yes, we are all holy; God told us so earlier in the Torah: “kedoshim tihyu — you shall be holy because I, God, am holy”. Korach was swallowed up by the earth. So, why such a severe punishment for saying something that God has already said?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers in interpretation. He says that Korach’s problem was that he assumed that everyone was intrinsically holy, and that they need do nothing to nurture or develop their holiness. He believed that no matter how a person behaved – whether or not we follow God and God’s laws – is irrelevant. That we are all holy just by being human. This mistake, says Waskow, was his downfall. God does not actually say that we are all holy. God says we all can become holy — that we all have the potential, but it is still up to us to realize that potential within us. It is not enough to just be a part of the world, our actions determine how we will be; we are not all holy automatically, we must work to become the best that we can be.
Korach was looking for the quick fix – benefit without work, glory without responsibility – and he was not nurturing the potential for goodness within himself and his followers.
Korach did not make himself holy, and he was swallowed up by the earth. Like a seed, he needed to be planted in the earth so that his potential could be realized. Korach’s descendants became the priests, and many of his children wrote some of our most beautiful poetry and psalms. That was his legacy and it could also have been his future, had he accepted responsibility for his actions rather than believing that we are all deserving without any effort at all. Korach and his followers were quick to complain about the leadership, yet they offered no constructive suggestions for change; no opportunity for the leadership to address their problems. Instead they complained, it would seem, for the sake of complaining. They did not take responsibility and rather sat in the background; offering complaints, seeking glory and avoiding accountability.
But what of the others who were killed in the plague? What was their crime? We are told that those who stood up and supported Moses were spared, whereas all the vocal supporters of Korach were killed, along with those who said nothing. Again, it is an example of not taking responsibility. God is saying that even when we do not speak, that can sometimes be the strongest support of all. When we do not stand up to wrong and injustice, when we remain silent, we become complicit. When we are standing on the sidelines watching, we are involved.
So often, it is easier and more convenient to drive on by. Not to stop and help, but rather to stay in our own sheltered worlds — as so many did in the face of Korach’s rebellion. Instead of standing up to Korach and defending Moses’ leadership they fell silent, not wanting to be involved. This is not the path to holiness.
Korach is looking for the easy solution; the quick path to fortune and fame. He wants to be the leader and suggests that everyone is intrinsically holy, independent of our actions and behavior. Moses and God on the other hand remind us that being holy is not easy. It is not something that just happens. Rather, it involves us in an active way; and that is why Korach was so successful. We want to believe that he has the answer; that we can have it all without consequence nor responsibility. But that is not the way of this world. Our actions do have consequences. We live with other people, and what we do affects them also. We need to get involved and to be a part of this world; to work to be as good as we can be and to be a holy people.