sabato 20 giugno 2009


Golda Meir used to say that we Jews are very upset with Moses. “Moses dragged us for 40 years through the desert to bring us to the one place in the Middle East where there was no oil.”
But Jews have had problems with Moses, well before oil was discovered, and even before entering the Land of Israel. Moses had to face serious challenges and many rebellions from his own people, us. This week’s parasha is named after Korah, who led an aborted revolt against Moses.
Korah rises up against Moses and Aron, challenging their leadership with such a harsh speech that Moses “falls on his face” (Num 16:6), turns to desperation. The confrontation is very hard. It can be solved only via a miracle, a direct action of God. Just like Moses “fell on his face”, so Korah falls with his family and possessions, into a giant crater that opens under his feet.
Korah was not alone. He had a number of followers, among them Dotan and Aviram, names that we find in the account of the rebellion given in Deuteronomy (Num 16:12) - where Korah is not mentioned. Indeed, in some other passages of the Bible (Num 27:3), only Korah is mentioned. These discrepancies led scholars to speculate about several rebellions, all a vivid memory to the Israelites; for some reason they have been collected by the authors of this text, and grouped under the name of Korah. Who became the prototype of the rebellious leader.
What kind of leader was Korah? First of all we know his lineage, something he was clearly very proud of. He was a son of Levi, a levite. He mobilized a considerable number of Israelites claiming that they were discriminated against because “all the community are holy, all of them”. (Num 6:3) While is clear, from Moses’ answer, that the goal of Korah’s faction was to enlarge the privileges of the Levites, Korah has been shrewd enough to present himself as a spokesperson for “the people”. He went around the Israelites, tent by tent, family by family, telling everybody that their frustration was his frustration, that their disaffection for the ruling élite was his disaffection, that their anger was his anger. And he managed to convince a number of people that a change in leadership was needed.
No doubt: Korah has been successful. He won the support of two hundred and fifty chieftains, all an’shei shem, “men of name” (Num 6:2), ambitious people. And even after the clamorous defeat, Moses and Aron are rebuked by “the people”, who were not immediate followers of Korah, but were, let’s say, sympathetic towards his cause.
And there were serious reasons to be upset with Moses. As is quite evident from the speech of Dotan and Aviran, the Israelites were wandering, and feeling lost; they felt they were going to die in the wilderness; the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, was not in sight.
Korah exploited this hardship; he manipulated those who were feeling excluded by the development of the Israelite society. Look at how he claims that “all the community is holy, all of them” – what a strange speech for somebody so proud of his genealogical descent. As an astute leader, while he speaks with Moses at the presence of his followers, he also nurtures their selfishness – “the Eternal God is in their midst”, while it is clear that God is everywhere, and not necessarily more active inside one faction or another.
The comparison between Korah and Moses is really interesting. Where Korah is a self confident speaker, Moses is stammering. Where Korah pretends to speak in the name of “the people”, Moses strives to lead the people according to God’s will. Korah appears on the stage as a self confident, natural-born leader, while Moses begins his journey as a hesitant young man; through this journey he will become a true servant of the people, able to overcome his own ego. Korah cares for the social affirmation of his own clan, while Moses cares for all the people: he is concerned for the reputation of Aron and together with him prays to God not to be angry.
When the confrontation reaches its climax, with the dramatic dialogue in front of the rebels, Moses exposes Korah’s intentions, goals, and malicious intent. “God has advanced you, o Levites, giving you direct access to the Tabernacle, and now you seek the priesthood too?” (Num 6:9).
As I have said, we know the conclusion of the story. Korah has been cancelled, but the memory remains. We read this story, or at least his name, once a year, as a summary of the more acute internal battles of the Israelites’ history.
What is particularly striking, in this account, is that right before receiving such a hard punishment from God, Korah and his group find themselves isolated. God has commanded the people of Israel to withdrew from Korah, Dotan and Aviram; Moses reports the command, maybe to give them an opportunity to repent and avoid the tragedy. But they keep on. They are confident, they believe they are on the right side, so they separate themselves from the community. What an irony: first they made a slogan of the claims that God is among all the people, then they separate themselves from the rest of the Jews, and such a separation is the beginning of their end.
There’s a poem by Laurie Patton, a contemporary American poet, in which she asks how did they sleep, the night before the confrontation: “Moses, sure of God’s voice, and Korah sure of his own” (1) . Had Korah not been sure about his voice, he would have been able to listen to the voice of God; and the tragedy could have been avoided.
This is a nice poem, but I find it very problematic. I do not like those who claim to hear the “voice of God”. Such a certainty can lead to the most horrendous crimes: too many wars have been fought in the name of God, by people who claim to be able to listen to the voice of Him -it is always He in such a case, isn’t it ?- telling them what to do. And I equally find embarrassing Korah’s claim according to whom “God dwells among us”.
Whether you share my feelings or not, we all belong to the Jewish people. Whether from our own experience, or from meditation about the story of Korah, we –as Jews- are well aware of the dangers of sectarianism, and the abysses of isolation that such an attitude opens under us. And we know that in this spiritual journey called Judaism, we should not hide our disagreements, nor exploit reciprocal hostility; indeed we are supposed not to act as Korah, but to follow the path of Aharon, to be lovers of peace, and pursue peace. And if we cannot get such a higher goal every time, let’s learn at least to co-exist.

Southgate Reform Synagogue, 28th Sivan 5769 (20 June 2009)

(1) see The Torah. A Women's Commentary, New York 2008, p. 913-914

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