From the Rabbi Korach – Rending Open the Status Quo

June 25, 2020

From the Rabbi

Parashat Korachפרשת קורח

This week’s parsha tells the timely story of a rebellion in the name of equal rights. What did Korach (who is demonized in much of our literature) want to achieve? He wanted to serve as High Priest. He wanted equal access to the highest station in his society, a position promised to all of Israel at Mount Sinai when God declared the whole of the People a “Kingdom of Priests.”Korach was so dedicated to an egalitarian priesthood that, in defiance of Moses’s warning, he brought the exclusive incense offering, and it cost him his life.

Our rabbis, by and large, teach that Korach’s intention to democratize the priesthood, and the leadership, does not ennoble him. His sin is in the fracture his actions cause, inspiring a rebellion that cost thousands of lives. Indeed, Korach’s name derives from a Hebrew root meaning “tear” or “split.” Surely divisiveness flies in the face of Torah’s purpose to unify in shalom, or shleimut.

But why would a parsha of the Torah be named for one who rends the community apart? Here we are, in a moment of re-ignited social revolution. Could it be that a rending is sometimes needed to make space for renewed consciousness and conscience?

Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes this during the fracture of WWI. I paraphrase:

Disintegration of conventional concepts, as understood in the past, brings about renewal of goodness in the world. This disintegration is like the natural decay that precedes growth from a seed. The seed’s shell breaks down, freeing the life-force buried in the seed and giving life to a glorious blooming. [1]

Surely, rebellion is not the only affective vehicle for social change. As in Korach’s generation, the price can be great. But when the old story is so restrictive that people are moved to forcibly break it open, we must look for the wisdom emerging from the cracks in the shell, liberated by rebellion to blossom into a new consciousness and conscience.

There’s pain in cracking open accepted notions and behaviours, and even more pain in cracking open our own sense of ourselves as we face the reality that we enable inequitable social norms. So, this week, just as we need the challenge, Torah gives us Korach who, in name and in deed, points to the truth Rav Kook elucidates: tearing open our conventions frees a healthier future to emerge.

[1] My gratitude for this text from Shmoneh Kevatsim presented by Melila Hellener Esh ed to the Hevraya of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.