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Unscrolled Korach: A Series of Misunderstandings

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Why did Moses fall on his face as if this were an affront? Why did the fire of God burn and the earth split open?

The post Unscrolled Korach: A Series of Misunderstandings appeared first on Jewish Journal.

“You have gone too far!” shouts the rebel Korach at Moses. “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?” (Numbers 16:3).

Speaking to the old man at the synagogue, I admitted that I didn’t understand. Why was Korach condemned to be swallowed whole by the earth? What was his crime? Was it that he challenged authority? Was it his radical egalitarianism? Was it that he dared to speak aloud what any decent person should believe: that all of God’s children are holy?

Why did Moses fall on his face as if this were an affront? Why did the fire of God burn and the earth split open?

Did not God Himself say, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6)?

Did not Moses himself say “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29)?

The old man tutted and shook his head. “You have misunderstood,” he said. He then explained it to me: Korach was not anti-authoritarian, nor egalitarian, nor a believer in the holiness of the people. He was a populist and a rabblerouser who used the language of equality in an attempt to raise himself above others. His quibble was not with the hierarchy of power, but rather his position in it.

His quibble was not with the hierarchy of power, but rather his position in it.

I nodded, but I wasn’t convinced. Something yet troubled me—a fear that we had buried a righteous man alive in the sand and were now engaged in some sort of cover-up, rewriting the story in our minds to make it appear that he deserved his fate.

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A year later when Parashat Korach came back around, I went back to the old man and told him that I had listened to what he said and had at last come around to his position. I had looked closely at the text. I had tried to suppress my twenty-first-century views and imagine things as they were in their own context. I could now see that Korach was a deceiver, and that Moses had seen through his deception and called him out for what he really was, saying, “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community…He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” (Numbers 16:9-10).

The old man tutted and shook his head. “You have misunderstood,” he said. He then explained: Korach was not a deceiver but a prophet bearing a radical truth that the world was not yet ready to hear. This would be made explicit by the Kabbalists, but it was hinted at by a single line in the psalms in which the last letters of each word spell Korach’s name. “A righteous man will flourish like a date palm.” Or, in Hebrew, “TzadiK KatamaR YifraCh” (Psalms 92:13).

The old man then looked at me with a look in his eyes such as I had never seen, and he told me how he had been to the Sinai Desert after the war when he was still a young man. He had traversed its sands and sought out its holy mountain, and at some point in his sojourn he had been startled in his solitude by the plaintive cries of a human voice, though no one was in sight.

He had traversed its sands and sought out its holy mountain, and at some point in his sojourn he had been startled in his solitude by the plaintive cries of a human voice, though no one was in sight.

Sun-addled, he wondered if it was a mirage, or a sign of oncoming madness. He stood still and held his breath. The voice, he realized, was coming from beneath the ground. He dropped to his knees and prostrated himself in the sand, laying his ear upon the ground in order to better hear.

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The voice was faint—almost impossible to make out. It was hoarse, parched for water and raspy from centuries of ceaseless muttering.

“What did it say?” I asked.

“One thing and one thing only,” the old man said. “All the community is holy! All the community is holy!”


Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

The post Unscrolled Korach: A Series of Misunderstandings appeared first on Jewish Journal.

Source: Jewish Journal https://jewishjournal.com/judaism/337604/unscrolled-korach-a-series-of-misunderstandings/

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