This is Not a Feel-Good Story (Korach)

Tonight, I'm going to talk about Korach. Korach was a first cousin to Moses and Aaron. He challenged their authority, claiming that the priesthood should belong to him. The story ends with the earth swallowing up Korach and his 14,000 followers. Korach does not display violence. He doesn't threaten his Israelite community.

Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you lord it over us as well? Besides, you haven't brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of field of vineyard.

Korach is a political dissenter. He doesn't like how his cousins Moses and Aaron are leading the people, and he thinks that he can do better. Incidentally, many elements of his speech are used in modern political discourse. Korach accurately reflects that Moses has not yet brought the people to a land flowing with milk and honey. He mixes a truth into his argument in his attempt to persuade the Israelites.

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This tale of Korach is a disturbing portion in our Torah. It is another story in which a punishment seems to vastly outmeasure the crime. Moses forces Korach to compete in an elaborate test that will show who indeed has God's favor. The test ends with the earth opening up to engulf Korach and his followers. Making things even more problematic, it was not just Korach's followers that died; the households and families of Korach's supporters befell the same tragedy.

We've talked in the past about the Jewish concept of Tzidduk HaDin, the judgement of God. A better understanding would be 'the rationalizations of God's judgments.' Rabbis create midrashim and backstories in order to justify a divine action that would otherwise seem cruel, harsh, unfair, unethical, or irrational. These are examples of Tzidduk HaDin. And there are many such examples that relate to Korach.

But tonight let's look only at the passage from the Torah, and not from rabbis' later commentary. At the worst, Korach is arrogant and full of hubris, but I don't think that he deserves to die. Kol v'chomer, all the more so, 14,000 of his followers and their families certainly did not deserve to die.

So, what do we do?

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I'm not going to even attempt to fit this story into our notions of what is right and what is wrong. It's a problematic text. Last week, God punishes an entire generation of Israelites, telling them that only the next generation can enter Israel. He does this because after sending twelve leaders to scout the land, ten of them come back filled with fear and anxiety. Time and again large groups of people are punished for the actions of a few.

But this is the message - well, actually the meta-message - that I want to leave you with tonight. The problematic nature of these stories are intentional. They aren't there to necessarily make us fear God. These stories aren't there to make us think that God is cruel. And although others would argue with me, they also aren't part of the Torah as a catalyst for our observance of Mitzvot. They are there to make us talk about them. They are there to make us question. To inspire us to converse, discuss, argue, comment ... to learn.

Our Torah is filled with these problematic tales not because we have a jealous, angry, capricious God, but because God wants us to think about them. God wants us to think about our morals. These stories help to create our Jewish identities precisely because they are problematic and difficult.

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The Torah is not a "feel-good" book. There are certainly stories of comfort and inspiration, moments of tenderness and love, relationships that display compassion and selflessness.

Taken as a whole, however, I think that the Torah is problematic. I apologize in advance for this pun, but the Torah being problematic is not a problem. In fact, it is exactly what makes it so precious. The problematic nature of our stories, whether they be Korach, the story of the 12 spies, Abraham sacrificing Isaac or God flooding the Earth, causes us to look inward for our own interpretations. They also cause us to look outward so that we can learn from others' perspectives. Put another way, our written Torah leads us to both find and create a different Torah.

Thoughts on Israel & Palestine

We Cannot be Jews Without Israel (Yom HaZikaron)