Korach

By Chaplain Leslie Klipstein

I grew up in New England, proud home of the Patriots, with neighbors who could trace their lineage all the way back to heroes of the American Revolution. My house was built in 1781 and I was steeped in the historical narrative of the righteous founding of American Democracy and our essential underdog scrappiness that allowed us to overthrow a despotic and far away king. Of course, that simplistic understanding has grown more nuanced and there has been some, though certainly not enough, reckoning with the horrors of colonization, but the ethos of American heroism and the language of revolution, patriotism, self-determination and justice still permeates not just New England, but our entire country. Our political discourse. Our sense of who we are and our core values of individual determination and grassroots activism. And it remains the bedrock narrative of much of how American history is taught throughout the country and across grade levels. Though I was intellectually aware of the limits of our founding story, it wasn’t until I became a teacher myself that I realized how simplistic our collective storytelling still is – AND that there was a perspective I had not yet considered, even in my adulthood.

One of my Canadian colleagues shared with me that in her early education she learned the same facts that I had, the same ones we were teaching to our students, but the patriots of my textbook were the rebels in hers. The Revolutionary War was called an insurrection, a revolt, a rebellion – not the heroic claim for independence or fight for a just government that I had learned.

History, it is said, is written by the victors, which posits our collective experiences as a series of conflicts with winners and losers. It has, perhaps, been ever thus. I hope it will not always be so.

This week’s parsha, Korach, is one of only five portions named after people and it is, indeed, a very human story. Korach challenges Moses’ authority, which angers G-d. G-d then causes the earth to “open and swallow Korach and all of his followers, their households and possessions, …and their wives, their children, and their little ones.” I cannot read this as a victory for Moses, Aaron, and the Levitical priests, whose authority and roles are defined here. The violent and traumatic loss of so many members of our community can only be seen as tragic. Power and authority at such a cost is despotism. An inability to value all members of your community, even if they are challenging or misguided, means you are not ready for leadership.

There are many lessons to be drawn here about the difference between power and authority, the best ways to challenge the status quo. And all kinds of corollaries can be drawn to our current political divisions – here and around the globe. When we squint, we can see connections to issues of institutional leadership, family dynamics, and the kinds of leaders we hope to be and see in our various communities. Are we Moses, who holds the wellbeing of the community above any one person’s needs – even his own? Or, are we Moses, clinging to power and willing to cut off whole segments of society to maintain control? Are we Korach, an intractable rebel with no respect for G-d and country? Or, are we Korach, willing to speak truth to power no matter the cost, insisting that all voices be heard and that power be shared? Who are we?

We are all of it, of course, the great both/and, depending on where we stand and what the earth is doing beneath our feet in any given moment.

Who is G-d in this part of our narrative? G-d is portrayed here as petulant and vindictive, ready to call the whole thing off and wipe out the entire people, overwhelmed by frustration and impatience. G-d causes a significant part of our community to disappear in a stunning lack of compassion, seemingly ignoring the foundation of creation: t’shuvah.

Maya Angelou famously said that when we know better, we do better. So let us do better than the models this parsha gives us. Let us look at Korach and Moses and even G-d with a discerning eye, with an open heart, and with a modern perspective.

This is a cautionary tale.

May we be cautious.