Korach: Challenging the Status Quo or a Calculating Populist?
June 23, 2023
By Deborah Goldman

This week’s Torah portion is Korach, named for a Levite who, with Dathan and Abiram, rebelled against Moses and Aaron.  In the text, the Hebrews are nearing the end of their wandering. The rebels felt that Moss and Aaron were holy, but that they too were holy.  To put this rebellion in adolescent terms, “who made you the boss of me?” While God threatened to destroy the whole community because of this rebellion, Moses and Aaron plead with God not to punish everyone for the wickedness of the few. Moses gave instructions to the community (perhaps as a precaution) to move away from the rebels’ tents. Despite the leaders’ protestations, the earth opened up and swallowed the rebels along with their households while they were alive, sending them down into Sheol (the biblical abode of the dead). The conflict ends by the divine miracle of the flowering of Aaron’s staff, confirming Aaron’s leadership position.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Korach the “first populist” and as Jews, we know how dangerous a populist can be. Per Rabbi Sacks, “Korach is the eternal symbol of a perennial type: the coldly calculating man of ambition who foments discontent against a leader, accusing him of being a self-seeking tyrant. He opposes him in the name of freedom, but what he really wants is to become a tyrant himself”.

On the other hand, Korach could have a good point. Is this narrative telling us that we shouldn’t question authority? I can’t believe that our tradition supports this approach. What about “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened” (Leviticus 19:16)? Many commentators refer to Pirke Avot 5:19 “A controversy for the sake of Heaven will endure. A controversy not for the sake of Heaven will not endure”.

We do not know the Korach’s motivations, and more modern populists often do not tell us their motivations, either. As we can see from Korach, populism is nothing new nor is it necessarily good or bad.  And we cannot count on the earth opening as a response to populism that endangers our community or our community members.

 However, standing up for the sake of heaven is something that we are all capable of in our own way, with actions both large and small. Often, these actions are rebellions against authority or at the very least the status quo. Some, but certainly not all can come with great personal risk. Those honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” saved Jews during the Shoah. Moreover, many Jews risked their lives during the Freedom Summer fighting to register Black voters in Mississippi. Suffragettes protested and marched for the right of women to vote. Sometimes it is the seemingly small acts that can have lasting impact, stepping in when someone says something hurtful, showing the person who could be hurt know that you are on their side. Be an ally.

Finding the sake of heaven is tough, but we can try. There is no guarantee of success and there is not just one right path forward. We can find large or small ways to act when populism or the status quo endangers the humanity of our neighbors.

We are all grateful to community members who are willing to do the hard work of challenging the status quo when that status quo reduces the humanity of others.

Thanks to all of you who are on this journey.

Deborah Goldman serves as co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council and as a member of the Buffalo Jewish Federation Board of Governors. She also works as a consultant and grant writer.

Korach: Challenging the Status Quo or a Calculating Populist? - Jewish Thought of the week 2022