The controversy between Moses and his fellow Levites, the latter group led by the infamous rebel Korach, reflects their different understanding of God’s relationship with us. Korach extrapolates his understanding from the story of creation: “God created human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created human; male and female God created them.” This verse teaches the ultimate equality and divinity of each human being. The rabbis learn from that verse that no human being can say to another “my blood is redder than yours”; that each human has equal dignity. Korach seems to presage the rabbi’s teaching with his words of attack against Moses and Aaron: “ 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 yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Yet the challenge of Korach is considered one of the worst rebellions in the Jewish tradition. How can we resolve this apparent problem?
We must acknowledge that Moses and Aaron taught slightly differently to Korach concerning the relationship of human and God. They accepted the notion that from creation each person has equal dignity before God. However, they also understood that our having a “a spark of the divine” is the beginning not the end,of our relationship. Coming out of Egypt, God instructs the people through Moses, “You shall (emphasis added) be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” We may have a neshama, a soul, an essential aspect of being connected to the ultimate singularity of being, but to be “God-like” is not to be God.
Over and over, the Torah emphasizes the obligation not just to be holy, but far more importantly, to act holy. To act holy as Jews, we need to learn Torah, understand its mitzvot and apply its halakhot (the traditional rules of how to act.) Just before the rebellion of Korach that opens this week’s Torah portion, we hear the maftir of last week’s Torah portion, which we now know as the third paragraph of the Shema. After the rebellion of the scouts, we are cautioned not to just follow our eye’s desire, but rather to look at the tzitzit, and remember what it means to life a life of mitzvah, of obligation toward others. Its teaches, “Then you will remember and observe all My mitzvot and be holy before your God.” Our equal dignity derives from creation; our potential holiness derives from our actions.
Korach’s rebellion is considered so damaging because in his conflation of ideas from the Torah he actually undermines essential principles of Judaism. Moreover, he does so by his misuse of language (itself a violation of Torah) sounding as if he is defending Torah principles that in reality he overturns. This fomenting of rebellion through manipulation of others remains a plague upon humanity to this day, only defeated by being knowledgeable and discerning, and by being consistent in right action. This Shabbat may we learn from Moses, not be led astray by Korach.