I really enjoyed David Matthews’ reading of Korach that I told you about on Saturday. David pointed out that when Korach and company challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron, and a jealous God struck out at the rebels, Aaron’s reaction was to bring healing and peace.
It would be way too simple to stop there, however. Aaron’s response still leaves Moses and Aaron’s authority intact, not dispersed or devolved to any of their followers. And Korach’s folk have a good point when they say (in the Etz Hayim translation):
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 16:3)
This is a point that Moses should recognize. Only a few chapters earlier, when Moses appoints seventy elders, two of them refuse to be called, but then they are touched by the divine spirit despite themselves and start prophesying from their own tents, Moses’ aide, Joshua, says, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses wisely answers, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:28-29). Furthermore, back at Sinai, Moses, Aaron, and all I Israel heard God say, “And you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)
It seems on the face of it that Korach and company are reminding Moses and Aaron of a basic principle. Their contribution should be accepted, not dismissed and punished. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the 19th-century teacher who was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, goes even further: their contribution should be celebrated. As the notes to Numbers 17:2-3 in Etz Hayim point out:
The firepans used by the rebels to offer incense have become sacred and are to be used as plating for the altar…Kook taught that the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary roled played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy. Challenges to tradition, he taught, are necessary because they stand as perpetual reminders of the danger that religion can sink into corruption and complacency….
David’s interpretation celebrated nonviolent resistance but quickly brushed by the fact that the rebels were really rebelling. Rav Kook looks rebellion squarely in the eye and welcomes it. His interpretation is part of the Judaism I love, which sees challenges to authority as part of our tradition, and a sacred duty.
And yet, and still: the firepans that the rebels used survive. The rebels themselves do not. Is this as far as we can go in questioning authority (not to mention sharing it?) I think not. There’s more to think about here.