11/12 June: Korach : Shabbat comes in 9:03 pm, ends 10:23 pm
Parashat Koracḥ – For Heaven’s Sake!
This week, we are reading about a very dramatic political challenge – hopefully only in the Torah, and not also in the newspapers. Parashat Koracḥ begins with the challenge of Koracḥ and his company to the leadership of our teacher Moses. Koracḥ and his company approach Moses with a challenge rooted in Torah itself: if the whole congregation is holy, as we’ve learnt from the Holy Blessed One, who is Moses to put himself above the community ?
Koracḥ might have a point here. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the nature of power and leadership. Nonetheless, the narrative does not move in the direction of addressing Koracḥ’s question – instead, we see Koracḥ and his company issued a test, which concludes by way of violent divine intervention.
If you never read another page of Torah, or never opened the founding books of rabbinic literature, you might come to think that any challenge to the law – or, perhaps, any challenge to the leadership of Moses – is off the table. However, this does not appear to be the problem at hand. We know that argument is part of the lifeblood of Judaism. If you open the complicated pages of the Talmud, you will be met with layers and layers of dispute and disagreement. If you roll through the Torah, you will even find people arguing with God – and sometimes winning those arguments. If it’s acceptable for a person to challenge even God, then kal va-ḥomer – all the more so – it must be acceptable for a person to challenge Moses.
There are two points of comparison that I think are helpful in understanding the nature of challenge. The first can be read if you roll forward just a little to Parashat Pinḥas: five women, the daughters of a man called Tzelafḥad, approach Moses and the Israelite leadership and point out a gap in the inheritance laws. The original Torah laws of inheritance don’t account for situations like theirs, in which there are no men to inherit without the name of the deceased man being lost to the clan. In this case, Moses realises that the five women have a point, and goes to seek clarification from God. God then alters the law so that in such cases, daughters can inherit. This is a public challenge to the justice of the law, and it is taken seriously first by Moses (who takes the question to God), and then by God (who shifts the law to account for their case).
The other potential point of comparison with Koracḥ is explicitly brought in Pirkei Avot 5:17, in which a comparison is made between the maḥloket (the disagreement) of Koracḥ and the maḥloket of Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai are early sages renowned for their disagreements, and whose schools of students continued that tradition of disagreement for generations. According to Pirkei Avot, the dispute of Hillel and Shammai was maḥloket l’shem shamayim, dispute for the sake of Heaven, which Koracḥ’s dispute was decidedly not. When Hillel and Shammai argued, their primary purpose was to find truth. Koracḥ, on the other hand, was not interested in truth; he was interested in power. The question about holiness and equality was a tool that he used – and ironically, it was a tool that he used in order to gain the very power to which he disputed Moses having access.
The problem here is not about argument; it is about why we argue, and what we are bringing to the table when we do it. If we argue with one another for power, no matter how prettily we dress it up, the Torah teaches us that it will end in destruction. But if our disagreements come from a place of truth-seeking (like Hillel and Shammai) or justice-seeking (like the daughters of Tzelafḥad), then we have the opportunity to build together instead of tearing one another, and ourselves, down.