Dear Friends: I'm away this week and pleased to share with you the following remarks by Michele Braun who studies Torah at WRT and who offers this week's D'var Torah.
Yours very warmly,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake
This week’s Torah portion covers Numbers chapters 16 - 18. It is called Korach, after the first [major] word in the section and after the protagonist. This is the story of a rebellion against Moses’s leadership. A rebellion that is put down completely, after which none of the rebels are left standing.
Here’s the short version, told in a few excerpts from the text:
“Korach…, Dathan…, and Abiram… took up, and they rose before Moses, and two hundred fifty men of the Israelites, community chieftains, persons called up to meeting, men of renown. And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them “You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?”
Shortly thereafter, “the ground that was under them split apart, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households and every human being that was Korah’s, and all the possessions.” … “and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” … “And a fire had gone out from the Lord, and consumed the 250 men….”
On the following day, “all the community of Israelites murmured … against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You, you have put to death the Lord’s people.” Then it appears that God unleashes a “scourge” – a plague of some sort? And, finally, to reaffirm Aaron’s authority as religious leader, God arranges a dramatic display: staffs from each tribe’s leader are collected, and Aaron’s staff -- but only Aaron’s staff -- sprouts flowers and almonds. (This latter bit is reminiscent of the trick that Moses and Aaron performed for Pharaoh back in Egypt – remember the staffs that turned into snakes and gotten eaten by Moses’s staff/snake?)
That’s the story. Reading it a few time through prompted me to start musing about the nature and value of dissent. A few questions come to mind:
1 – Why tell this story?
2 – Why rebel?
3 – Was God’s response appropriate?
First: It’s a story. Why tell it?
We don’t know if the events related here took place, took place during the 40 years that the tribes of Israel spent wandering in the desert, or if the story developed later. All we can know is that by the time the book of Numbers was redacted the story was there.
Scholars suggest that these passages may actually recount several rebellions, somewhat awkwardly compressed together. One of these rebellions would have been led by Korach, a member of the Levite tribe that served in the tabernacle. His rebellion appears directed at Moses and Aaron, at their religious leadership. These rebels, along with their families and possessions, are swallowed up by the ground that split open under them.
The second rebellion would have been led by Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Judah. This rebellion appears directed at Moses alone and was supported by “community leaders and men of renown.” Perhaps this rebellion reflected dissatisfaction with the civil leadership. These rebels were consumed by fire.
The most obvious reason for telling these stories is to show that God’s choice of leaders is not open to discussion and the punishment for objecting to the designated leadership is absolute. No objections are permitted. The message was delivered in a very public way: The text says that “…they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel that was round about them fled at the sound of them, for they thought ‘Lest the earth swallow us.’ ” Rebels dead. Message delivered. What’s not to understand?
Not satisfied with these two accounts of rebellion followed by swift and final retribution, the text tells that the next day, all the community “murmured” against Moses and against Aaron. That is, despite the very dramatic evidence that rebellion doesn’t pay, protests continued, even spread. (Sound familiar?) The protests, this time, were about the unfair nature of the retribution. Let’s call this a third rebellion against the leadership. Because the “murmuring” is widespread, so too is the response, which comes in the form of a plague. Message reinforced: It’s not just the leaders of the rebellion who were destroyed but anyone who supported them… even if that support was limited to being appalled by the punishment.
For a second reason for these events, let’s look though the lens of political economy. Thus: this is a story about the formation of a people and its institutions. If this collection of tribes, plus perhaps some non-Israelite peoples, is to survive to become the nation so often promised in the Torah, it will need institutions, tools for continuity and permanence. God’s goal, or that of the redactor, is to create a group, a people, and ultimately a nation, unified. All effort must be toward that goal and significant attempts to undermine those goals and that unity must be suppressed. Any deviation, any distraction cannot be countenanced.
Next question: why rebel?
The text says that “Korach…, Dathan…, and Abiram… took up, and they rose before Moses….” The phrase that these three men “took up” is unresolved. A word -- a noun – is missing. We’re not told what they took up: Arms? Protests? The turn of phrase is discordant and unsettling.
The next sentence helps a bit: “And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them “You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?” This sounds like Moses and Aaron being accused of centralized control, of taking too much power. This could be a real – perhaps legitimate? – complaint.
Were Moses and Aaron making bad decisions? Were they keeping too much day-to-day control of rules and decisions, on issues both large and small? Were they giving prominent roles or power to only a chosen few? Were they unfairly restricting access to the tabernacles, which could be seen as limiting access to God? Remember that only certain people (Aaron’s descendants) could serve in the tabernacle, could lead the sacrifices. But this is supposed to be everyone’s god.
The rebels did ask “why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?” Could the rebels have meant: who are you and yours to be so special? Alternatively, was the leader of the rebellion a malcontent who wanted more power? What did the chieftains and community leaders who supported the rebellion expect to get out of it? What were they promised in exchange for their support? Status? A closer relationship with God? Something more tangible? The text provides no hints.
I’ve been using the word “rebellion” to describe these events. Rebellion is a strong word; it conjures up images of violence and revolution. However, we don’t actually know that these events were “rebellions.” Maybe a different, more nuanced, word is appropriate. How about “dissent?” Dissent is milder. It encompasses action, perhaps non-violent protests, or civil disobedience, or letters to the editor, or tweets of complaint.
Maybe our protestors just wanted a greater voice in the creation of this new entity, the “people of Israel.”
Third question: Was God’s response appropriate?
Here’s another Bible story, with a different response to dissent: This week’s Haftarah portion recounts the prophet Samuel’s answer to a leadership challenge. In the face of military threat from Nahash, king of the Ammonites, the people ask for a king. Samuel takes pains to affirm the quality of his leadership, to make sure that there are no civil, religious, or military blotches on his record. Then he anoints Saul as Israel’s first king. Although both King Saul and Prophet Samuel are beholden to God, now, for the first time, the Israelite people have separate civil and religious rulers. Although the populace does worry about God’s response, God takes no action, does not objection.
Looking again through the lens of political economy, the Samuel story shows that dissent can motivate societal change.
Sociologists and theologians like to talk about “response to modernity.” Usually, this question focuses on the last hundred years or so. Or maybe on more current -- “post modern” -- times. But response-to-modernity occurs as every generation faces the challenges and innovations of its “modern” world. Even to a now-ancient world.
In the case of Moses and Aaron, the loose-knit tribes had just faced change. The leaders were trying to build stability, structure, and permanence. The Samuel story, on the other hand, suggests that the dissent indicated a need for change; the dissent was a force motivating that change.
One final observation: Despite the rather fantastical ways in which these rebellions were put down – swallowed by rifts in the ground, toasted by heavenly flashes of fire, these stories have a ring of reality about them.
If they didn’t occur precisely as told, I would still posit that these are based on real events. Objections to leadership, dissent, protests against centralized power, complaints and murmurings… these sound credible. And familiar.
June 24, 2011