Parshat Korach: Sacred Rebellion

It may not come as a surprise to you, but I have been thinking about what it means to be the parent of a teenager lately.

There is a myth that all teenagers are, as a rule, rebellious, don’t listen to their parents, do stupid, reckless, dangerous things, and are generally a huge pain for parents to deal with. Recent research into brain functioning explains why all of this happens, and what is more important, this is good for the teenager (provided that one of the reckless things does not kill him or her).

In general, this seems to be evolution’s way of encouraging teenagers to learn new things, explore new opportunities, to boldly go where they haven’t gone before. This prepares them for leaving their parents’ home and going out into the world on their own. If we don’t rebel in some way to differentiate ourselves from our parents, we do not fully grow up. Rebellion is a part of the sacred process of becoming ourselves. I find it appropriate that the Jewish people mark the beginning of adulthood, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, at the beginning of the teenage years.

Can we apply what is generally true for an individual to an entire group? Can a group of people reach its “adolescence,” and engage in healthy rebellious behavior?

Yes, and I would even venture to say that this week’s villain Korach gets a seriously bad rap, and is just engaging in this critical process of sacred rebellion.

Korach is usually portrayed as a self-serving, conniving schemer, who gets groups with significant grievances to challenge both the leadership of Moses and Aaron, just to get even with being overlooked for a higher position in his tribal leadership. The rabbis castigate him, and label his fractious rebellion as the epitome of as debate that has no enduring value.

I respect this reading of Korach. During our learning together, Hadar and I came to see that this is very likely the main lesson learned from the Korach rebellion. But there are always other ways to read the Torah, as the Rabbi Ben Bag Bag says: turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. So I invite us to see another side of Korach.

Just as a teenager begins to see things differently, especially their parents who now begin look like flawed, imperfect people, so too B’nai Yisrael becomes an “adolescent” people during their years of wandering in the wilderness, and begin to see their current leadership in a new light, as flawed and imperfect people.

Over the years, I have seen many a middle school aged children develop an extremely strong sense of justice, almost to a fault. Any action that did not live up to their high standard for fairness would be immediately called out and questioned, even if it meant disrupting the learning for an entire classroom of students. (Ah, fond memories!) Deep down, and I mean really deep down, I appreciated that passion, that drive for justice, but most of the time, they just drove me crazy. Their demand for absolute justice revealed an immaturity, one that needed to be tempered by a healthy dose of humility. (But then, when have most teenagers shown a healthy amount of humility?)

Korach is the emerging of B’nai Yisrael’s adolescent voice demanding justice. And he has a lot to complain about.

  • He was overlooked for a position that should have been his.
  • Moses and Aaron hold a lot of power in one small family.
  • The Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the entire people had built, was supposed to bring God into their midst of the people, not provide jobs for one tribe.
  • To add to that, instead of going right to the Promised Land, they have to wander in the wilderness for forty years and most likely die there.
  • Top all of this off with the fact that Moses and God are now having mostly private conversations, and it is unclear what decisions come from Moses and which ones, if any, come from God.

I can see why Korach stood up and said: You have gone too far!

Korach is the people’s power first finding its voice, like a teenager who sees his or her parents for the first time with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a parent or a leader. Korach speaks with passion, power, righteous indignation, and immaturity. His rebellion is mingled with fear, greed, envy and ambition. A potent and dangerous combination. But Korach gets all of these feelings out in the open. He breaks open the silence and leads his rebellion that helps the people becomes more confident, mature, wiser and more humble.

If he had not spoken up, the doubts, whining, and complaining would have continued to fester among the people, and would have wiped us out from sheer exhaustion. The whole thing could have fallen apart.

Korach represents our voice of truth, our inner rebel, that questions authority, our prophetic voice that demands justice. But when we are young, it is a raw voice that often shatters the peace, not helping to create it. As we grow and mature, our gained wisdom merges together with the call for justice, and helps us develop a balance between justice and peace.

The incense fire pans used during the rebellion were later saved and hammered into the bronze plating for the main sacrificial altar. The charred remains of the rebellion become holy. The parts of the rebellion that burned up, the arrogance, the self-centeredness, are gone, but the remains are still there, the passion for truth, justice, the sacred questions that Korach asks.

What happens to Korach? It is not clear from the Torah itself, but the Rabbis assume that when the ground opens up swallows the rebels alive, and Korach goes down with them. They say if you were to go to the Sinai wilderness, and find that crack in the ground, you could put your ear to the crack and hear Korach, say, “Moses was right.”

Our challenge is to nurture and refine our inner rebel, no matter how many years it has been since it was buried (some of us never buried it!), to give it the right conditions to grow and mature. Remember when we were young, our passion which may have been dampened by life’s ups and downs. Remember when we have that fiery energy moving through us. When we time is right, we can dig up the rebel buried within us and combine it with the qualities  we have worked for so many years to develop.

Perhaps it is time to release our inner rebels.