Parashat Korah 5772 (on dealing with people who are wrong!)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

How do we deal with people who are just wrong?

We are given an archetype of people who simply have the wrong idea in parashat Korah. Korah, Datan and Aviram, together with 250 other Israelites, rebel against Moses and Aaron’s authority. Whatever their intentions may be and whatever fair points they may make, the Torah makes clear that they are incorrect and even sinners: Moses and Aaron are who God has chosen, and Korah and his followers are to be eliminated.

The parasha sends a clear message as to how people like this are to be dealt with: the ground opens up its mouth and swallows Korah and his closest followers, together with their families and possessions. This is a solution of destruction. The only way to move on in the face of this nature of opposition is to get rid of those who are wrong, finally, dramatically and publicly.

One brief passage, however, casts this notion of Korah as the epitome of improper thinking and behavior into doubt.

Before Korah and his followers were swallowed by the earth, they, together with Aaron, all brought incense in firepans to offer to God, on the assumption that God would in some way demonstrate who was favored. After the brutal demonstration was indeed made, God gives a curious instruction.

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: אֱמֹר אֶל-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת-הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת-הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה-הָלְאָה  כִּי  קָדֵשׁוּ
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, to pick up the fire-pans from the remains of the fire (and scatter the coals) because they [- the firepans -] have become sanctified. (Numbers 17:1-2)
אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ כִּי-הִקְרִיבֻם לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה וַיִּקְדָּשׁוּ וְיִהְיוּ לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

And make them into hammered sheets as a plating for the altar, because they were brought before God they have become sanctified, and they will be a sign for the Israelites. (17:3)

If Korah and co were so out-of-line, why do their fire-pans get a place of prominence? And what is this “sign for the Israelites” indicating? A couple of verses later the texts says that it should be:

זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ
a reminder for the Israelites so that no stranger, one who is not a descendent of Aaron, should approach and offer incense before God, and not be like Korah and his group. (17:5)

But if this is the only reason, why must these tools of insolence be placed on the altar – the object of holiness?  Couldn’t they be placed at the entrance to the Tabernacle, more publicly, and further away from the most sacred places? Putting heads on spikes at the gates of the city makes sense, but to put them on the President’s dinner table?! Ew.

With this command, the Torah seems to be acknowledging that the service of Korah’s group was, in some regard, valid: the firepans “became holy” through their actions. This is certainly at odds with the severe punishment that they received. Not only the rebels themselves, but everything they had was swallowed up into the earth. Now we learn that not everything they touched was condemned.

Our commentators suggest reasons as to what, exactly, was valid, holy even, about the incense offering of Korah and his followers.

Ramban suggests that as Moses told them to bring the incense, this was enough to confer some degree of holiness. The Or HaHaim explains that this is strictly about the pans themselves: as they were made for holy service, even though they were misused, they retain holiness. The Emek Davar claims that Korah and his followers may have been wrong to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership, but that their intentions were pure in the act of offering incense before God.

These explain why the firepans have some holiness to them, but how does this justify using them to plate the altar?

Our verses say that they are to be an “ot,” a “sign” for benai yisrael. An “ot” is generally indicitive of something positive: Tefillin are described as an “ot al yedaykhem” – a sign on our hands to remind us of our relationship with God through Torah. Aaron’s staff that bursts into flowers and almonds is an “ot” to emphasise to the people that Aaron was selected as priest. The rainbow is an “ot” of the covenant with Noah to preserve the earth. Moses is given “otot” by which people in Egypt may know that he is an emissary of God.

So what is the positive lesson of the story of Korah, one so central to a life in the service of God that it is nailed to the altar itself?

The Maharam miRotenburg picks up on the first word of the instruction: vayarem – pick up, or raise up. He notes that the same word is used elsewhere in Tenakh (1 Sam 2:10) in a context of redemption: vayarem keren meshikho – God will raise up the horn of God’s anointed one.

He then quotes a midrash (Eliyahu Rabbah 70) that includes this parable:

There is a poor servant-girl who goes to the well to draw water, and accidentally drops in her bucket. Distraught, she sits down and cries. Along comes a princess with her silver bucket, which she too loses it into the well. On seeing this, the servant gets up, and starts singing joyously. In answer to the princess’s surprise at her change of mood, she explains: when my wooden bucket was in the well, who would come to raise it out? Now, whoever comes to raise up your silver bucket, will also raise up my wooden bucket.

The midrash goes onto to explain that when the messiah comes to redeem the world, Jerusalem’s gates, which, according to Eicha, sunk into the ground when the city was destroyed (2:10), will be raised up, and when that happens Korah and his group will be raised up with them.

One might have thought that the punishment of Korah and his band would be eternal, that they would remain beneath the earth forever. This midrash denies that : the redemption of the rest of Israel (or all of the world) will also be the redemption of Korah and his followers. The copper plate on the altar serves as a reminder that the messianic future will include everyone, even those who served as an example of wrongdoing.

Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, encourages others to “live as light”. He writes:

Living as light means putting away remedies based on fear, retribution, and revenge, and acting … to respect the dignity of all humankind – not just those we agree with or whose paths we understand – but every human being. It means that if correction is necessary, we much search for ways to rehabilitate that are consistent with our faith. We cast out the sins of war, torture, terrorism, corporal punishment, and condemnation and find ways to bring individuals back into balance through remedies founded in truth. … All our work, all our struggle, all our days add up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves to the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family, that we are all emanations of one divine source… (Across That Bridge, 177)

Lewis’s mentor, Dr King spoke about the necessity of this approach in the search for a redeemed future:

Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate … but to win … friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself… . (I Have a Dream: Speeches of MLK, 124)

And he calls that end, that future, “the coming of the Lord.”

Now, it is hard to argue that the Torah is exclusively endorsing peaceful winning of friendship. However I do want to suggest that the Maharam brought this midrash to teach us that the “solution” of opening up the earth and swallowing the rebels is not a permanent fix. It may have been effective – perhaps even necessary – at the time, but ultimately Korah’s assembly will share in the same redemption as the rest of us.

Korah and his followers – both in the parasha and today – may be wrong, and we may have to demonstrate that they are wrong, but if we seek a future of peace and redemption, we also have find a way to view them, and as best we can treat them, as fellow human beings who will be a part of that future.