This week’s portion, Korah, details the great rebellion against Moses and his authority. Korah and his followers gathered against Moses saying, “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 16:3)
One can understand their complaints. It is easy to imagine what people might have been saying about Moses. “Can you believe this guy? He keeps telling us he is talking to God and that everything is going to be wonderful. The land is so beautiful he keeps promising. But when are we going to arrive there? Will we ever get there? Day after day we eat this manna. Day after day we schlep. We keep walking and walking. Every day is the same. And then this guy Moses keeps changing the original plan.”
One can be sympathetic to their grumblings. On the surface the criticisms appear legitimate. Examine the Torah’s words. Judaism does indeed believe that everyone can speak to God. Our religion requires no intermediary. Moses is not holier than any other human being. Yet Korah and his followers are severely punished. Why?
Midrash Tanhuma suggests an answer. It imagines Korah asking Moses these questions: “Does a tallit all of blue still require blue fringes? Does a room full of Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah?” In the rabbinic imagination Korah’s questions are brimming with disdain. His words suggest that he questions the entire system. It is because he is so disrespectful that he is punished.
We often do the same. We highlight inconsistencies in our religious systems, and political systems, not to correct but instead to mock. It is of course far easier to poke fun and reject rather than affirm and improve.
We appear to live in an age when too many have become Korah. We seek to amuse. We mock those with whom we disagree. We even call those with whom we disagree: traitors. Our culture measures an argument’s winner not by the merit of the ideas but by the reactions of the participants. If someone is made to cry or stammer then they have lost the argument, even better if they are made to do so on TV. We no longer debate ideas. Instead we attack others.
We have become Korah. And for this we should ask forgiveness and mend our ways. If we are ever going to make it to the promised land and improve our society we must not attack each other. We must instead debate and argue about the ideas that might change our world.
What Korah failed to understand we as well fail to grasp. We are all in this together. And we are all in the wilderness. We had better master debating the ideas that matter without seeking to undermine the entire system. We had better figure out a way to argue with each other while not shouting words of hate.
Of those who left Egypt only two made it to the promised land. I do not wish to be standing alone in the land. I do not wish to remain in the wilderness.