Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

Facebook_CoverDesign_KorahRenowned meditation practitioner and founder of Plum Village Retreat Center, Thích Nhát Hanh (b.1926) once remarked:

"It's very important that we re-learn the art of resting and relaxing. Not only does it help prevent the onset of many illnesses that develop through chronic tension and worrying; it allows us to clear our minds, focus, and find creative solutions to problems."

How does Torah teach us about such creative solutions if not through creative tension [machloket], which is symbolized by the story of Korah?

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying with his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!," he proclaims. This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a depiction of the chasm which opened under Korah and his allies. Numbers 16:32: "The earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses, and all the men who were with Korah and all the property." Although the text of the parsha does not describe the chasm in any detail, it is imagined here as a great, volcanic sinkhole. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.