OU Torah Insights Project
Korach, a Levite, a cousin of Moshe, leads a revolt against Moshe and Aharon. Martin Buber explains Korach's rebellion as based upon a distortion of G-Ds summons to become holy--"Kedoshim tihiyu."
Rather than view Divinely mandated holiness as a challenge, hope or request, Korach baldly states, "For the entire community, all of them, are holy, and the Lord is in their midst." Holiness is presented as an already established fact.
Consequently, argues Korach, that being the case, there is no need for Moshe and Aharon's leadership, nor is their need for the instructions and commandments allegedly delivered from G-d.
"Why do you exalt yourselves over G-d's community?" Korach demands. The people stood at Sinai, were addressed by G-d, and have the Ark and Tablets in the Sanctuary. G-d is "on their side" if not in their midst. They do not need guidance, instruction, laws and commandments. Whatever they do will be holy because they are holy.
This "insolent self-assertion," as Buber calls it, is a great temptation for those who move on the trail of holiness. Self-righteousness, triumphalism, sacred arrogance are the dangers and pitfalls that mark their path.
Further reflection on this story leads us to ask for the foundation of Korach's position. As often is the case, there is a partial truth embedded in his position that is the source of his danger and destructive potential.
Korach knew that there exists an Ancestral Covenant--the Bris Avos, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z"tl, taught--which G-d struck with the fathers and mothers of Israel, and that they are a consecrated, holy people because of this covenant. Moshe himself taught the principle, "You are a nation holy unto the Lord your G-d."
However, as the Rav explained, this early, Ancestral Covenant is followed by a second covenant at Mount Sinai, where the nation redeemed from Egypt gathered to hear the word of G-d.
It is from the Ancestral Covenant that we derive our strong sense of family belonging and common destiny: we are the children of the fathers and mothers of Israel. As members of the same family, we care for each other, rejoice in each others successes, and cry over each others tragedies.
The Sinai Covenant, on the other hand, is of a different kind. It is one of learning and doing: specifically, to learn to do that which was commanded to us by G-d. We are bidden to strive for personal holiness through the commandments. Holiness is not a given but something to achieve.
Korach was not entirely wrong. He articulated his position on the basis of an important facet of the Jewish soul: Ancestral Covenant consciousness. That is his redeeming feature. In fact, Korach's descendants were righteous Levites who sang and officiated at the Jerusalem Temple.
The Ancestral Covenant consciousness is the basis of all of Judaism. Without it there can be no Sinai Covenant. Korach's descendants learned well from their ancestor the importance of the Ancestral Covenant and eventually found their way into an understanding of the Sinai teachings.
Many Jews today are Korach Jews. Their main link to Judaism is a deep appreciation for the historical experiences of our people. They are strongly aware of our unique destiny, a lesson reaffirmed by the events of our time: the Holocaust, the destruction of our ancient communities in numerous lands, the migrations to new communities, and, of course, the building of the State of Israel.
These Jews may have forgotten the Sinai Covenant, the traditions and observances of Judaism, but they have not disregarded the Ancestral Covenant.
Other Jews, however, are in need of Korach's message. About them we would say "Halevai--If only it were so!" If only they had some Ancestral Covenant consciousness.
These are Jews who think of themselves as being like everyone else, as having no unique destiny, as having little, or nothing, in common with other Jews.
Halevai that they should at least think like Korach. Then their children might have a chance to be counted among the future generations of our people.
While the Ancestral Covenant is the foundation of our identity, it needs the nourishment of the Sinai Covenant. Through Torah study, those who have lost even the Ancestral consciousness can be inspired to see the beauty of our covenantal traditions and reconnect to our destiny.
Rabbi Howard S. Joseph
Rabbi Joseph is rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation in Montreal, Canada.