I am always challenged by this week’s parsha. Not in comprehension or interest, but because I find myself siding with the bad guys and identifying my own experience in their rebellious rhetoric. Adversary to Moshe Rabbeinu is not a space I’m entirely comfortable occupying, and yet I can’t help but recognize the validity of the opposition.
Parashat Korach tells the story of a renegade band of Levites, disgruntled with the status quo. They question Moses’ leadership and their compelling arguments have persuaded others to join their attempted mutiny. “Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth – descendants of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘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 16:1-3)
Theirs is a valid question. If all of Israel is holy, why is Moses elevated as messenger of God and captain of the people? Why does he alone have the authority to make decisions that effect all? These are questions with modern resonance, particularly where women continue to be excluded from the rabbinate, the study of certain texts, and the opportunity to pray publicly while wearing tallit or tefillin. If all of Israel is holy, why are gender-based roles proscribed and why do they continue to be enforced? Wherever our opinion lands on the spectrum of modern Jewish observance, the analysis is worthwhile and can lead us to a richer understanding of our shared tradition.
Of course, the brazen Korach and his band of insurgents are unsuccessful. Not only do they fail to gain power, they and their families meet a spectacular demise. “… The ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, ‘The earth might swallow us!” (Numbers 16:28 – 34)
A commitment to fairness and equality leads many of us to cheer for the underdog. Especially as Jewish women, it’s often easy to see ourselves as the ones who are excluded, the ones attempting to effect change and challenge those in power. Across every industry, women remain egregiously underrepresented in positions of leadership. We continue to earn less than our male counterparts. We are the primary victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
So, I get Korach. I’ve experienced the same frustration with leadership and struggle to create space for all voices. But, I’ve also had my values tested and been compelled to make decisions that weren’t always popular but which I believed were right. I’ve given gratitude to God and asked for guidance. Sometimes, I’ve received it. In these pieces of my story, I am reminded of Moses.
Instead of identifying with Korach, what if we choose to see ourselves in Moses? A leader of his people, humble and deeply connected to God, Moses was not swayed by the pressure of a dissenting tribe, or the monumental responsibility of being a messenger of the divine. His decisions were not always popular. The commandments he relayed were not always simple or easy. Yet, Moses was resolute.
Too often, we compromise our convictions. We worry about how we might be judged, whose feelings we might inadvertently trample, and whether or not the conflict is “worth it.” We fear upsetting the balance of our lives, we fear failure or we fear the responsibilities that come with success. Ultimately, we demonstrate less faith in ourselves than we do in a system or situation we know to be askew.
Yet, we have it within us to chart a course with our own moral compass and stick it out. If not completely bulletproof, we are resilient. We can detail all we’ve endured and marvel at our strength, wisdom, and tenacity. We can lean on whatever relationship we have with God to remind ourselves of what we know in our guts to be true. We can inventory our values and take action to improve our world. If we all viewed ourselves a little more like Moses, and a little less like Korach, imagine what we could accomplish.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.