What Makes Us Holy?
Remembered mainly as the power–hungry rebel swallowed by the earth for challenging Moses and Aaron’s authority, Korah is also depicted by the Midrash as a wealthy and successful former minister in Pharaoh’s court and the patriarch of his Levitical family clan. In the Biblical limelight for just a fleeting moment, Korah is one of the most complicated characters in the Torah. Fittingly, his legacy is equally complex.
Korah is not an “outsider” in the Israelite camp. According to the Midrash, Korah, as a member of the Kohatite–Levite family, is among those entrusted with the special responsibility of carrying the ark of the covenant whenever the Israelite camp and the tabernacle are moved.
We know from earlier in the book of Numbers that the Torah recognizes that this responsibility comes with certain caveats. With careful stipulations, the Levites are instructed not to look at the holy vessels they carry. Some commentators hold that this rule was enacted out of fear that the vessels may lose their sanctity in the eyes of their holders. The Torah also understands that it is human nature; those who handle holy vessels — or anything valuable for that matter — may be tempted to misuse them for their own purposes.
In this week’s Torah portion we see firsthand that the eponymous character may have gotten too close to the spiritual seat of power. From his proximity to the symbol of God’s brit, covenant, with the Jewish people, Korah developed illusions of grandeur.
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Korah confronts Moses: “You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why did you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (Exodus 16:3) Korah gives the impression of promoting an egalitarian platform for the Jewish people. There is a consensus among traditional and modern commentators that Korah’s true motivations lie in removing Moses and Aaron from power and ruling the Israelite community as he sees fit without the yoke of God’s Torah.
One may try to simplify this episode to Moses feeling threatened by others undertaking positions of power and leadership in the Israelite camp. But this interpretation contrasts Moses’ attempts to share leadership whenever possible. Moses appoints many judges, empowers the tribal leadership during the reconnaissance of Canaan, and establishes the council of the seventy elders. Furthermore, several chapters ago when Eldad and Medad, two random Israelites, begin prophesizing on their own, Moses is elated by their ability to tune into God’s presence in the world. In Moses’ eyes, Eldad and Medad are examples to be raised up, not silenced. The difference between Korah and these young prophets is that the latter’s experience encompasses experiencing God’s presence in the world, while the former is transfixed on lessening God’s presence to make room for his own ego–driven designs.
After the rebellion has been contained, God instructs Moses to have Korah’s fire pans hammered and melted into a covering for the altar. These pans had already become sanctified when used previously for an incense–offering to God. These metal coverings would serve “le’ot leev’nay yisrael,” “as a warning for the people of Israel” (Exodus 17:3). The word “ot” literally means “a sign,” and from the context it is easy to see this altar covering as a memorial cautioning future rebels.
The placement of this warning, however, strikes me as bizarre. One might expect that such a warning would be outside of the tabernacle and away from the altar, not connected to it.
We find a subtle clue as to the reason for the interconnected placement of this warning and its multifaceted meaning in the commentary of Ibn Ezra, a twelfth–century Spanish sage. Explaining the word “ot,” he oddly offers two explanations; the warning is “a memorial and a sign.” Ibn Ezra’s assertion affirms the sentiments of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, which states “what a symbol signifies never exhausts all that it means.” Equally important, Ibn Ezra taps into the mixed legacy of Korah himself.
Korah’s legacy cannot just be reduced to a cautionary tale. The ambivalence about his character is expressed in the “memorial and sign” created to remember the rebellion. As a memorial, the hammered sheets warn the people and their spiritual leaders — the Levites, the priests and Moses — that when serving God their intentions need to be transparent and sincere. As a sign, the covering on the altar itself subtly encourages all Jews not to follow their leaders blindly if they seem to have strayed from the path. When questions are guileless and “leshem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven, public debate can become a sacred enterprise, unite a community, and raise us to new spiritual heights.
In the midst of his own rebellion, Korah does not grasp the very essence of what makes the Jewish people an “am kodesh,” a holy nation. As the “chosen people,” we are not bequeathed a sense of entitlement; rather we are obligated to create opportunities for God’s presence to be felt and experienced in this world. Not only are we encouraged to question authority in certain situations, but we are expected to listen to those voices that are different from our own.
The memorial of Korah reminds us about not only the danger of self–interested defiance of divine authority, but also our eternal obligation to challenge our leaders if they stray from society’s best interests. The ultimate irony is that Korah’s complex legacy inspires us to be rebels with a cause, namely creating God’s holiness in the world.
Rabbi Charles Savenor
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.