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Torah Commentary
Korach (June 24, 2017)

Everybody Is Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Now Korach, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dothan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, along with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the Assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For 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 16:1-3

The story of Korach always has puzzled me. Korach is a Levite, a cousin of Moses and Aaron. When he asks to be included in the leadership of the community, he does have a point. Aren’t the Levites the priests? And isn’t Korach a Levite, and thus a priest and a leader? Yet, when Korach and his co-conspirators challenge Moses, the earth opens up and swallows him, his extended family and all their possessions. Oops!

The answer to Korach’s question in this story is clear. Moses and Aaron were chosen by God, and he wasn’t. End of discussion. Yet, throughout the Bible and elsewhere in our liturgy, we are reminded that we are “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” Korach doesn’t seem to be completely wrong. Or does he?

The answer is “yes and no.” While Korach and his family were destroyed, his descendants were not. The descendants of Aaron became the kohanim, the High Priests. The Levites, Korach’s folks, became their helpers, the Temple servants and associate priests. With the destruction of the Temple, all this became irrelevant. There were no priests because there was no Temple. Our liturgy now stresses that all of us, children of God, are capable of performing holy acts.

So why do we read the story of Korach? The first, and most obvious, reason is because it is there. The Bible is our holy book, our people’s history, and no part of it can be overlooked.

Second, Korach is a great story. The oral Torah, the folk tales of Israel, was handed down from generation to generation. And what a spellbinding tale to tell by the campfire, or the hearth, to keep the children interested! Be good, boys and girls, and do what the Lord has instructed your parents, or you, too, might get sent down into the bowels of the earth! It’s not my idea of how to teach one’s children, but I bet it worked!

The Bible is a wonderful book — or, more accurately, collection of books. It has survived all these millennia because it is our people’s history, their dreams, their fears and their aspirations. Does it all make sense according to 21st century standards? Of course not! Neither does Shakespeare, but that is not a reason never to perform “The Merchant of Venice.” We learn from our literature and our history, take what is relevant as our own moral code, and move on.

Our Bible stresses over and over that there never again was a leader like Moses. But Korach wasn’t such a bad egg, and his punishment seems like overkill. In the end, we just have to admit it was a good story to keep the children spellbound on a winter night.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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