Power Failures

Power Failures

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

In Torah, even a single word can capture the attention of commentators. In this week’s portion, Korach (Numbers 16), the first verse begins, “Vayikach Korach,” “now Korach…betook himself,” or he “took”; but, due to syntax challenges, the exact meaning of the word “vayikach,” in this sentence, is uncertain.

The Biblical commentator, Rashi (11th century), explained that Korach “’betook’ himself to the side in order to separate himself from the community. This way, he could protest against Moses who appointed his brother to the priesthood.” Other commentators agree that Korach sowed dissension by standing apart from the community and winning over others with clever words. In effect, it was Korach’s plan to separate the people from the rest of the community, too, and claim a holy role for himself. 

As you already know, the plan backfired. The earth opened up and swallowed him and his unfortunate followers. There’s a hint in Rashi’s commentary that reveals more about what Korach “took.” Mishnah teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Rashi knew this and drew Korach’s bad example to its logical conclusion. Nothing good would come from anyone who thought he could thrive by setting himself against the community, and a faithful community at that. Korach only made matters worse by fomenting rebellion among the people.

It’s no wonder Moses “fell on his face,” (16:4), though we might render it as “his face fell.” According to Rashi, this was the fourth time the people rebelled. These are the four times Rashi highlights:

  1. When the people sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).
  2. When the people complained and murmured against Moses (Numbers 11)
  3. When the spies (scouts) reported on the Land (Numbers 14)
  4. Now at the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16)

Finally, after four brushes with rebellion, it was clear who caused the trouble and who spread an ill report among the people to separate them from the holy community. In Numbers 14:22, we read, “Ha-ish echad,” this one! In context of the verse, it was asked of God, “When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” (Numbers 14:22). In a Midrash, the Eternal’s full reply is made clear, “You have spoken well; I know and shall make known who has sinned and who has not sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 7). 

“This one” and “that one” were known to God. They would pay the price for driving wedges between the people and separating them from the holy community. The earth, once called to bear witness to God’s covenant (Deuteronomy 30:19), was summoned now to demonstrate the final verdict against those who went against God and God’s faithful people. Korach and his followers’ last stand ended in an earthly grave. They aren’t remembered for their power-grab; they’re only remembered for their horrific demise.

Today, there are no similar biblical acts of justice, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t benefit from some (even a little). A day doesn’t go by without horrific acts of defiance, civil unrest, and unholy deeds. Communities have been torn apart by those who never have enough power and privilege. As it was then, ours is not to “take on” anything that separates us from a community of mitzvot; rather, ours is to advocate for justice, because Torah and its teachings are sacred symbols of power that are uniquely related to ethical striving and moral responsibility, individually and collectively. I, for one, am afraid of heights (and depths) and have always favored truth and wisdom. Even when it’s difficult to find truth and wisdom, it’s worth the search and the rewards.


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