Friday Dvar Torah for Korach
From Rabbi David Schuck our first session Scholar-in-Residence. Rabbi Schuck is the Rabbi of the Pelham Jewish Center and is at camp for his second summer.
The past few parshiot deal with issues of rebellion as bnei yisrael struggle themselves into nationhood. As is true with all cases of rebellion, both corporate and individual, the issue of power is central. By the time we reach Parashat Korach, Israel is still reeling from the debacle of the spies who assessed their reconnaissance intelligence solely on the potential of their own military power and neglected to consider their greatest strength: God’s extraordinary protection. Despite all of the miracles that they witnessed, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the military defeats of Israelite enemies by virtue of God’s interventions, bnei yisrael are still unable to accept the notion that their might is essentially defined by their covenant with God. In a moment in which the nation requires healing, along comes Korach and his minions who challenge the power structure established by God.
Korach’s claim is that all of the Israelites are holy (presumably because they all heard God’s voice at Mt. Sinai), and that Moses and Aaron had no right to elevate themselves over the rest of the people. Korach took advantage of the prior upheaval among the Israelites in order to stage a coup and try to usurp Moses’ power for himself. What he failed to understand was that Moses’ position of power came from God, not from his personal ambition. His rebellion was thus against God, which was of course, futile. Korach was not secure with his place within the Israelite camp- he felt that he deserved an elevated status- and as a result, he was so blinded by his ego that he was even willing to challenge God.
The midrash deals directly with sources of power. In Bamidbar Rabbah 16:12, the midrash asks how the spies who were sent into Israel were supposed to determine the strength of the inhabitants of Israel. By merely observing people and not engaging them in battle, how is one to know whether they are strong or weak? The answer offered by the midrash is that “if the people dwell in camps, they are strong and secure in the power. If they dwell in fortresses, they are weak and their hearts are soft.” At first blush, this seems to be the reverse of what we would commonly think. People in fortresses tend to be better protected for battle. But the midrash suggests that in the end, true strength is found in people who are unafraid of the world around them. To wit, strength is derived from our ability to be open to the world despite its dangers rather than close ourselves off to it because of its potential threats. The implicit message of the midrash is that such confidence and security is born out of a deep sense of faith, faith both in ourselves and in God. Korach’s mistake was not his ambition. His mistake was in not tempering his ambition with an openness to the larger needs of the nation in which he lived, a nation that was struggling to learn how to live in relationship to a God who was teaching His children how to live in a world with only one fortress: the fortress of faith.
Moses’ immediate reaction to Korach’s challenge is to deal with it in the morning. He says that God will decide the true leader in the morning, and the midrash argues that Moses does not immediately suppress the rebellion in order to give Korach time to repent. Moses is thus a compelling embodiment of the notion that power is found in self confidence and faith, not walls of protection. Moses is secure enough in his position of leadership and in his relationship with God that he is able to resist the temptation of immediately crushing the rebellion in order to give his adversary an opportunity to re-examine his behavior. This ability to temper one’s reaction with patience is the type of power that the rabbis idealize.
At Camp Ramah, we work hard to instill self confidence and faith in God in the campers, as we are aware that such things are prerequisites for building strong Jewish communities. Whether its lake staff, woodworking staff, yahadut teachers, bunk counselors, or drama instructors, we are all humbled by our sacredness of mission, and privileged to play even a small role in helping our future leaders shed their fortresses and live open to the wonders of the world with a deep faith in God and the Jewish people.