Korach: The Rebel

We’re at an interesting part of the Torah. Egypt’s history. Not yet ancient history, but there’s enough road dust between here and there that we don’t think or talk about it all the time. The desert, while bleak and unforgiving, hasn’t killed us. Neither has Leviticus. God’s around. And while sometimes scary, he’s seems (mostly) to be using his power to guide and protect us. The manna keeps coming. And coming and coming and coming.

But we’re starting to get restless. There’s lots of muttering and asking, in the immortal words of childhood: Are we there yet?

Nope. We’re just beginning to be tested.

When I write a dvar it starts by a form of active listening that sometimes feels like taking dictation. Listening to whatever sources of inspiration guide and instruct me, followed by lots of honing and crafting by Helen the writer.

Working with Korach was harder. It kept coming back at me, the way a rough piece of wood challenges a carpenter. You keep sanding and sanding, trying to get the wood to become smooth as glass.

Part of Korach’s lesson: wood is wood. Its intrinsic nature is striated; it contains knots and rough places, parts that are not easily tamable. Parts that keep rising to the surface. announcing themselves, no matter how well or often we try to subdue them.

It wasn’t until Shavuot that I reached a deeper relationship with Korach. A more visceral understanding of how necessary it is to surrender completely to the divine word and the divine will.

Maybe it takes standing at Sinai and hearing God’s voice. Being shattered and opened by that power, to completely grok how great a part of us — despite our longing to be loved by God — holds both subliminal and active resistance to the depth of trust that HaShem is asking for. How much we resist what’s required of us. How we hold back from using our free will to choose surrender.

But I’m ahead of myself. Here’s the Korach’s Cliff Notes: Korach tries to incite a mutiny by challenging Moses’ leadership and Aaron’s priesthood. He and his henchmen are joined by 250 distinguished members of the community, who offer sacred incense to prove their worthiness. God commands the earth to open up and swallow the mutineers. The incense offerers are consumed by fire. There’s a plague, another one, which Aaron stops with his own incense offering. And a ceremony where each tribe plants a staff; Aaron’s miraculously blooms almonds to prove he’s divinely ordained as High Priest. God commands offerings of various crops and critters, plus other gifts, be given to the Kohanim (priests).

There’s lots of ways to look at this story. Everything from a political science view (competition and a power grab), to a restless hunger for authority that grabs for the wheel and says, Let me drive for a while!

To me Korach’s about the often enacted martial art of “do-me-in-do.” The part of you that practices self-sabotage even when you know the truth about what’s right and good.

It’s the negative essence of Gevurah (the principle of restraint) wound in on itself. When you’re so tightly bound in your own ego and mistaken sense of self-righteousness that you don’t leave room in your heart to accept the authority of another. Or to hear Truth with a capital T. When your resistance to any voice except your own is so great that you cannot see or hear what God is telling you.

It’s about the part of you that needs to have something to push against. Needs to prove to yourself — at the cost of health, fortune, even life — that you are right. Even if you are wrong. Cutting off your nose to spite your face, acted out on a communal level. Korach and his henchmen, dragging the others with them into the pit.

I want to be very clear that I think there’s times in our lives, individually and collectively, historically and personally, where being a rebel is not only called for but appropriate, honorable, and necessary. Times to resist tyranny and injustice, to stand up for what’s good, right, and true. When your integrity is in collision with what’s going on around you, you need to embrace your inner Korach and stand up, even if you put yourself or what’s dear to you at risk.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Korach is saying to Moses, Hey I can do better. It’s the ultimate hubris of ego. A guy drunk on the idea of self and power, going eyeball to eyeball with the man who sits in the Tent of Meeting and talks face to face with God.

The smart money’s not on Korach. It’s an important archetype and a great lesson. There’s no mistaking what happens when we wrongly rebel. Challenge God: bad things happen. And good ones don’t.

Most days I walk in the early morning, when flocks of wild turkeys are strolling about. I’ve noticed lately, how, when I get close, the big toms puff up their plumage and brush their wing feathers against the road. It makes a low, rustling,  threatening sound. If I were another turkey I might be afraid. But that turkey challenging for turf is a Korach in the making. Showing power, but lacking real authority.

I think the more important Korach story is inner. Is about how Korach is in each of us. About why we cling to false displays of power, instead of embracing our best and godliest aspects. About why we resist and rebel, instead of choosing our inner Moses.

It’s about why we feed our yetzer hara (inclination towards evil), not our yetzer tov (inclination towards good). The one who holds us back, keeps us treading quicksand until we are submerged and swallowed.

Each year when we read this parshah, I get a pit in my stomach. Why does Korach scare me so much? Because of how familiar he feels.

He’s my internal enemies writ large, cloaked in all their self-righteous finery. He’s the I know better voice, the one that leads me down the wrong road, or keeps me from the right one.

Korach’s already forgotten the wonder of Sinai. He’s unwilling to surrender to God and walk the long path through Bamidbar, now another forty years. He’s blinded by his own ego, always clamoring for voice and recognition.

I do Torah study with a close friend, and inevitably, as we get into conversations about our personal lives, we confront the age-old question: Why don’t we change? Why don’t we listen to our higher voice?, the voice I’m calling today our inner Moses.

We always end up with the same list of reasons. The order changes, given the moments of our lives. But see if any of these sound familiar: denial, resistance, inertia, stubbornness, fear, guilt, shame, doubt, and probably others my own denial won’t let me recall.  It’s our well-schooled Korach hard at work, keeping us from doing what we know is right.

So here’s what I think Korach is really about. I think it’s our fear of truly seeing God. It’s the part of us that can’t yet face holy truth. That’s not ready for more, even though we think we want to be.

We’re never told what happens in the Tent of Meeting when Moses and God meet face to face. But he’s seeing and hearing something from between those cherubim on the mishkan that he’s able to and the rest of us are not.

Korach is the part of ourselves that longs to be there too, but who cannot even bear the secondary light than emanates through Moses. Like a mirror that reflects back our inner spark, the honor and essence of our souls, that’s how bright Moses must have shined to Korach. And because he was not ready to see that light, he rebelled.

I think the healing we’re supposed to get from this parshah is not revenge and not avoiding our inner Korach. Sure, we need to tame our ego. And sometimes chastising is exactly the way to do it. But if the goal is to increase our love of God, we need a better process than killing. We need motivation to step up, not to cower down.

Pay attention when your inner Korach speaks. Listen carefully. Then look deeply at what he’s asking you to say Yes to.

A few years ago I made a deep kavannah (commitment/intention), one I felt came strongly from my Moses side, about what I wanted to do with my life. About how I wanted to use my time here, and what it would take to get me ready. I knew my Yes would become an axis for my life. Would require leaving a mitzrayim (narrow place/Egypt) of my own making. Fortunately I committed only to three years of Bamidbar, not forty, though HaShem has a great sense of humor about such vows.

My inner Korach has rebelled time and again. Yikes. Enough already. I don’t have the discipline this journey requires. But time and again I’ve been guided back, have learned to chose goodness instead of ego. Because I think each of us, no matter how reflexive our habituated resistance, deeply wants to be Moses, not Korach.

I credit Torah study in large degree for any progress I’ve made. Weaving the strands of the parshot into my head and heart. Witnessing how the laws challenge us and the stories reflect our daily lives. Also what prayer teaches. What we’re asked to do, as people and as Jews: how find goodness, how to live it, and how to create even more of it. Tikkun olam (healing the world) from the inside out.

It always comes back to making and keeping deep kavannah, and the persistent act of shining light into every dark corner. To the idea that to become whom we are able to become, to emerge into the wholeness that is possible for each of us, to become the people we aspire to be, we need to confront and channel our inner Korach. Need to let that rebellion come full fore to the surface. Experience all the pain, anger, shame, and sorrow that accompanies it.

And then to find the courage of Moses. The presence of the one who can stand at Sinai, so close to God, and say the simple Hineini. I am here. Please make me ready.

To me the lesson of this parshah is about not running any longer from that holy ground. Not being stuck in denial and resistance.  Not rebelling any more. Being willing to stand and say: Whatever you ask I will do. With your guidance and your help. How you want me to serve?

We need to choose the process and act of t’shuvah (return). Of return and the healing that follows. Of re-uniting our Korach and our Moses. Without ego, without a power struggle, and without running from what hurts, or what we fear. We need to heal that deep separation from God that’s at the core of the pain that Korach feels and Korach causes.

It’s only with that depth of t’shuvah that we can heal and find wholeness. Heal and find forgiveness. Heal and find goodness. Heal and become our better selves. Our best and better selves.

Shabbat shalom.