Try to imagine yourself an Israelite at the time of this portion. You had followed a couple of old men out of Egypt to go to a Promised Land, leaving a miserable but predictable life as a slave, impressed by the plethora of plagues (I don’t know if a plethora can equal 10, but I like the alliteration), and you have witnessed the Revelation at Sinai (which frankly scared you out of your wits). Over the following year-plus, you have built a beautiful Tabernacle and received many communications from the Lord via Moses. You now have a priesthood and a legal framework with which to serve the Lord. But there have also been many conflicts with the Lord, I don’t know how many plagues and punishments, and the occasional lack of faith (e.g., that Golden Calf incident). You are now supposed to enter and conquer the Promised Land. But 10 highly respected men, whom you likely know better than Moses, return from a scouting trip to say that the Land is unconquerable and all those months of preparation have been for naught. Then, those ten are struck down and you and the other adults are sentenced to wander in the wilderness for the next 38+ years, or until you die, whichever comes first.
Now, how does that make you feel?
It is no wonder that this portion depicts not the usual whining, but out-and-out rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Dathan and Abiram are Reubenites, descendants of Jacob’s first-born, who act as if they think they should therefore be the leaders of the nation, though they don’t explicitly say so. Korach, a Levite, seems to be angling for the position of High Priest, though, again, he doesn’t say so explicitly. There are also 250 followers of Korach, leaders of the community. Like most demagogues, Korach seems to speak in the name of the people, saying Moses and Aaron have no authority, and, since all the people are holy, someone else should take their place. Dathan and Abiram refuse to come when summoned and go so far as to accuse Moses of taking them from a land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness.
Moses once more persuades the Lord to not destroy the whole people. But the rebels’ rejection of the literally God-given authority of Moses and Aaron implies rejection of the Lord and must be dealt with quickly and severely. The three ringleaders get a truly awesome punishment: The earth opens up and swallows them and their households. The 250 are consumed by fire when they try to offer incense.
And how do the Israelites feel now? Chastened? Obedient? Nope. Try angry, horrified, resentful, and still rebellious. After all, these were well-known community leaders who died. Who might be next? Once more, they are threatened with annihilation, Moses and Aaron intervene, and they are instead struck with a plague, killing 14,700, which is stayed when Aaron makes atonement for the people. Aaron’s priestly legitimacy is reaffirmed [his staff alone blossoms and bears almonds – cf. the last scene in the movie Enchanted April (1992)] and the perks and roles of priests and Levites conclude the portion. The people have been cowed into submission, and there are apparently no more major rebellions over the ensuing decades.
It is tempting for us to think of Korach as a proponent of democracy. But even if he were, instead of a self-serving demagogue, there are times, like the post-Exodus wanderings, when people are not ready for democracy and a more autocratic form of government is called for. However, if you want to try to think of Korach as a biblical Thomas Jefferson, Rabbi Ronnie Cohen wrote a clever “Korah’s Declaration of Independence” as an 18th-century style midrash last year (thanks, Stanley). Excerpts are below. The whole thing is posted athttp://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=10309 .
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to overthrow the political and religious tyranny which has confined them, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to this action.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Israel are holy, that the Lord God took us out of Egypt to serve God, and not to replace one Pharaoh with another; that to afford us the opportunity to serve the Lord God, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from God, with the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,… The history of the present leader is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these Tribes…
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury, by pestilence and by death. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Tribes, solemnly publish and declare, That these Tribes are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent Tribes; that they are Absolved from all Domination by the Tyrant Moses; and that as Free and Independent Tribes, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent Tribes may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Parshas Korach On 1 Foot
by J. Efram Taub Posted: 07-09-2006(Viewed 1137 times)
(VADATO = and his congregation. PI (pron. Pee) HAARETZ = mouth of the earth
KORACH VÁDATO: Power to the people!! Power to the people!! Power to the PI–
PI HAÁRETZ opens up.
KORACH VÁDATO: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
PI HAÁRETZ: burp…
Power to the Pi.
Interesting to consider: Is British English capable of sustaining demagoguery?
A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Episode 3 (excerpt)
Hugh Laurie: So let’s talk instead about flexibility of language – um, linguistic elasticity, if you’d like.
Stephen Fry: Yes, I think that I’ve said earlier that our language, English –
L: As spoken by us.
F: As we speak it, yes, certainly, defines us. We are defined by our language, if you will.
L: [to screen] Hello. We’re talking about language.
F: Perhaps I can illustrate my point. Let me at least try. Here is a question: um…
L: What is it?
F: Oh! Um… my question is this: is our language – English – capable… is English capable of sustaining demagoguery?
L: And by “demagoguery” you mean…
F: By “demagoguery” I mean demagoguery…
L: I thought so.
F: I mean highly-charged oratory, persuasive whipping-up rhetoric. Listen to me, listen to me. If Hitler had been British, would we, under similar circumstances, have been moved, charged up, fired up by his inflammatory speeches, or would we simply have laughed? Is English too ironic to sustain Hitlerian styles? Would his language simply have rung false in our ears?
L: [to screen] We’re talking about things ringing false in our ears.
F: May I compartmentalize – I hate to, but may I, may I: is our language a function of our British cynicism, tolerance, resistance to false emotion, humour, and so on, or do those qualities come extrinsically – extrinsically – from the language itself? It’s a chicken and egg problem.
L: [to screen] We’re talking about chickens, we’re talking about eggs.
Rebel or Patriot?
The difference between a rebel and a patriot is who is in power.
What did one earthquake say to the other?
It’s not my fault.
You know the L.A. earthquake registered 6.6?
The Russian judge gave it a 5.8.
I believe in questioning authority up until a certain point, and that point is reached when I am the authority.