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Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

“And your uplifted donation shall be regarded by you as the grain from
the threshing floor and the fullness of the wine press.” (Numbers 18:27)

Imagine: a wealthy member of the elite class, whose personal fortune was not earned, challenges the established hierarchy by posing as a populist and lying about the current leadership. No, this scenario is not “ripped from the headlines.” It’s the backstory to Parashat Korach, this week’s parasha, or portion.

Korach’s rebellion is doomed, not because he challenges Moses’ authority, but because of the way he goes about it. Korach acquires his fortune by discovering and appropriating one of Joseph’s hidden storehouses of gold and silver (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 110a). So he rises to power as Pharaoh’s treasurer (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15). In the desert, Korach feels slighted and overlooked when Moses appoints Elizaphan, a cousin, to lead the Kehat family in its responsibilities for the mishkan, or Tabernacle (Num. 3:30). So he spreads lies about Moses’ moral character and presents himself as the champion of the common folk (Midrash Tanchuma Korach 4-6). God is not fooled, though, and Korach and his band are swallowed up by the earth (Num. 16:31-33).

Challenging authority is encouraged and even demanded in Jewish thought; after all, that’s how Moses got his start as a leader. But Rabbi Bunim of P’shis’cha (1765-1827; one of the main leaders of Chasidic Judaism in Poland) interprets the command, ”Tzedek tzedek tirdof…Justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 16:20) to mean one may pursue righteousness only through righteous behavior. The ends cannot justify the means and that is Korach’s downfall.

Machloket, or disagreement, is a critical ingredient in Jewish thought. No less important are the ethics of argument. As Grantland Rice observes, it really is all about, “… how you play the game.”

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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