June 7, 2013: Korach's Holiness (Korach)

The story of Korach is conventionally interpreted as a dire warning against insurrection. Korach, Dothan and Abiram, and 250 chieftains of Israel rise up against Moses, Aaron, and the priestly class. Their actions prompt several outcomes: the earth opens up and swallows Dothan, Abiram, and Korach’s followers (Numbers 16:32-33), and fire goes forth from Adonai and consumed the 250 chieftains. [The second outcome is reminiscent of an earlier episode, in the Book of Leviticus, when Aaron’s firstborn sons, Nadav and Abihu, offer unauthorized “strange fire” upon the altar. The Torah employs the exact same words to describe what happens to them: “fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them.”] (Literally criticists posit that that the final text contains several originally separate narratives woven together.) Most commentators view these consequences as divine punishments, but I do not. In fact, I consider Korach’s stance not only irreprehensible but paradoxically sanctioned by Torah.

It is said that the Book of Psalms expresses the full range of human emotions and needs, from exhilaration to despair, and every sentiment in between. I believe the same holds true of Torah. Hafoch bah ve-hafoch bah de-kulah bah, proclaims the Talmud: "turn it, and turn it, for it contains all within it." (Pirkei Avot 5:25) If this is the case, then Torah must express both the official, pious declarations of faith and obedience as well as outbursts of defiance. Torah must leave room for Korach, because he, too, articulates legitimate principles. There are circumstances when we need to challenge authority, even the time-tested pronouncements embedded within the Torah scroll itself.

All of us can point to scriptural passages that we know in our hearts to be fundamentally immoral, but we don’t walk away from them. We confront them and argue against them. Disputation is a form of passionate engagement—every bit as much as agreement, perhaps more so. Only indifference betokens lack of love. One of the hallmarks of my Rabbinate is the insistence that Torah is vast enough to embrace all perspectives. My job is not to convince you of my point of view but to help you find a home for your own orientation within Torah.

The text itself justifies the interpretation that Korach’s actions are not inherently wrong. Moses challenges Korach and the 250 chieftains to a contest of the firepans. They are to bring incense, Aaron will do the same, “and Adonai will make known who is God’s, who is holy, and whom God has brought near (hiqriv) to Him.” (Numbers 16:5) What happens? The text doesn’t say that God chooses Aaron or that Aaron wins the contest. The text merely says that fire goes forth from Adonai and consumes the 250 men. (Numbers 16:35) (Note, by the way, that Korach’s own fate is not recorded.) Cryptically, the text adds that the firepans of those who perished should be hammered into sheets as permanent plating for the altar, because “they have become holy.” (Numbers 17:3) Commentators have long puzzled over this verse: if Korach’s uprising were so heinous, why would the firepans become holy and placed as a permanent fixture in the Holy Sanctuary?

It appears that Adonai does make known who are his, who are holy, and whom God brings near to Him—and they aren’t Aaron and the priests! They are Korach and the 250 chieftains! Korach and the chieftains are the ones who became holy (as indicated by the firepans), and the chieftains are the ones whom God brings near (hiqriv), in the sense that they exhibit such passion for God that it costs them their lives. Fire consumes them; they sacrifice themselves (hiqriv) as their own burnt offering. [The same can be stated concerning Nadav and Abihu: Nadav and Abihu also sacrifice themselves as their own burnt offering.] (Note that le-haqriv has two meanings: “to come near” and “to sacrifice.”)

As a final embellishment, the text concludes that the hammered firepans that become incorporated into the Mishkan are to serve as an everlasting ot. JPS translates the word ot as “warning”—a warning to future generations not to follow the example of Korach. However, ot properly means “sign,” and it usually denotes the Sign of the Covenant. For example, concerning Shabbat, the Torah states: ot hi le’olam, “it is an eternal sign” of God’s love for the Jewish people. Perhaps Torah calls Korach’s firepans an ot—just as it labels Shabbat and circumcision—to indicate that passionate displays of anger and rebellion have a permanent place within the Covenant between God and humanity, along with conventional expressions of loyalty.

I am not alone in maintaining a redemptive view of Korach’s actions. The great Rav Kook declares as follows: “the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy. Challenges to tradition are necessary because they stand as perpetual reminders of the danger that religion can sink into corruption and complacency. Plating the altar with the firepans of the rebels is meant to remind us of the legitimacy, indeed the potential holiness, of the impulse within each of us to rebel against the stagnation and complacency that can infect religion.” (Eitz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, p. 866)

May adherence to religion—or any other authority for that matter—always allow room for confrontation. May faith always admit doubt. As Korach himself declares: “All the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst.” (Numbers 16:3) May we elevate all our acts of contrariness to holiness and divine intention.