Korach: Trauma

Lex is with IfNotNow Providence.

“The entire congregation are all holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?”

Welcome to Parashat Korach. For some, this section of the Torah tells the story of God’s triumphant victory over a band of villainous rebels. For activists, it describes something different. It’s familiar. And it’s devastating.

Parashat Korach, despite what some might tell you, is not the story of good defeating evil. Certainly, the God of the Hebrew Bible wins out, and God’s apparent enemies are destroyed. But was Korach, the leader of a rebellion against the centralized authority of Moses and Aaron, really God’s enemy?

Korach’s plea, articulated above, is quite simple. While predating the Black Panthers, John Lennon, and others who used the phrase by a few thousand years, he in effect was unleashing a protest of “Power to the people!”. To the hierarchical structure of Israelite society, with Moses and Aaron on top and everyone else far below, he cried, “No more.”

In Korach, many of us see ourselves. He speaks out, loudly and passionately, against an injustice of his time. And his reward? God opens up a hole in the earth, which swallows him and all of his fellow non-violent protesters.

From Christina Mattison Ebert’s D’rash Design Collection

I could try to rehabilitate this text. I could apologetically identify ways in which, perhaps, something about Korach’s actions made God’s egregious response necessary. Many others have tried.

But I can’t do that. I can’t write off the reality that a few hundred people were killed, by the God our tradition holds dear, in order to preserve the power of two men and limit the power of the collective.

So what do I do instead? Do I disavow the Torah entirely? Is it all a farce, based on a commitment to power-structures I cannot support, along with the violent preservation of them in ways that I oppose whole-heartedly?

I don’t think so. Our Jewish texts resist perfection, instead presenting characters who are flawed. I am proud that, in our tradition, even God can make terrible, tragic mistakes.

So I look for a different lesson. In particular, I look towards a set of characters who played a crucial role in this story, but had no voice. I look towards Korach’s children.

You might have thought, since 250 people were killed during this rebellion, that Korach’s family was among the casualties. Fascinatingly, that is not the case. Later in the story, the Book of Numbers states directly that “The line of Korach did not die out.”

More than that, Korach’s descendants are explicitly named as the authors of 11 of the 150 texts included in the Book of Psalms. Children who experienced the trauma of their father’s death, or perhaps grandchildren who inherited that trauma, still found a way to latch on deeply and contribute passionately to a powerful element of our holiest text — the TaNaKh. The real harm inflicted on their ancestors, in other words, did not hinder their ability to take part in the collective Jewish experience.

Today, the traumas of our parents and grandparents continue to plague us. The real damage inflicted upon them by forces outside of their control make it hard to envision a fully liberated future, with freedom and dignity for all people.

But in IfNotNow, recognizing that reality and seeking to overcome it are at the very core of our work. We can hold, simultaneously, a knowledge that terrible wrongs were done to our ancestors in the past while also refusing to allow those wrongs to define us today. The children of Korach can be examples to us as we do so. A few thousand years ago, they refused to let the violent experience of their predecessors force them out of Israelite society. Instead they created timeless works of art enshrined in Jewish life for millennia, which millions have looked to for solace and guidance.

May that lesson be a service to us as we reflect on Parshat Korach. As we look out at a contemporary landscape built on the occupation and oppression of Palestinians, let’s find the strength to build a better world. Moses, Miriam, and Aaron are not our only exemplars of Jewish leadership. Korach is, too. May our words and actions constitute 21st-century Psalms, establishing a society of justice and equality that would make him proud.

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