This week’s parasha is Korah. It takes it’s name from that of Moses’ fellow from the tribe of Levi, Korah, who attempted to lead a rebellion against Moses. Korah led the rebellion because he believed that Moses and Aaron were claiming to be holier than the rest of the community. Korah believed that all of the people were holy and that they should share in the special relationship with God. In short, he wanted to be a priest as well. At first it might seem like this is the first socialist revolt, the first time when the proletariat tried to wrestle power from the elite leadership of the community. Yet if one looks at the true nature of the revolt one will find that this is not the case.
As I stated above, Korah was not just a member of the “common folk.” He was a Levite. By his birth he was granted a special status among the people. He had prescribed duties and was one of those responsible for the upkeep of the Mishkan, the wilderness tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant and was viewed by the people as “God’s dwelling place.” He may not have been one who spoke to God “face to face” like Moses, nor was he like Aaron and his sons (also of the tribe of Levi) who became the priests and performed the sacrifices, but he was still a member of the elite. He may have couched his revolutionary language in terms of the desire for a more democratic system by shouting to his cousin Moses “are not all God’s people holy, ” but in reality he was really just trying to expand the elite priestly class to include himself. Moses sees through his ruse and responds by questioning why Korah is not satisfied with his role as a Levite and why he feels the need to be a priest as well.
Korah leads the rebellion with thousands of followers, and yet I would guess that if he could have simply gone to Moses and pleaded to be allowed access to the priesthood alone he would have done so. Korah served only himself, but in the end he and his followers were swallowed up by the earth at the command of the Divine. They all suffered the consequences even they were really serving the needs of one disgruntled Levite. This turns the concept of communal responsibility on its head and reminds us of the potential danger that comes from perverting the concept that we are each responsible for one another.
Korah presents us with a model of leadership that has become all too common throughout history: a leader who claims to want the best for his people, yet cares only for himself. He is one who doesn’t mind taking others with him down the path to potential destruction if there is any chance that he might gain access to more power for himself. And he must have known that this was a distinct possibility, both due to God’s previous actions and Moses’ present warning.
As Reconstructionists we believe strongly in egalitarianism and democracy. Yet these two terms do not mean that every person has the exact same access to “power” as Korah seems to be requesting. Egalitarianism means that all are treated equally and have an equal opportunity for input. Democracy means that each of us is represented in the system and our voice is heard and taken into consideration. Yet, in order for a governing body to work efficiently and to truly serve the greater good someone has to be in charge and certain people must ultimately be those who make the final decisions — otherwise we would descend into anarchy and chaos. In our government we know that the “buck” has to stop with the President, the Congress or the Supreme Court, depending on the particular issue. Our ancestors created a delicate balance of power that is not perfect, but which tries to be as close to perfect as possible. Sometimes it falls close to the mark and other times it falls far short of it. But it is a system that tries to serve all the people as best it can.
The same is true, though on a much smaller scale, in a congregation or any other organization. We have leaders who must ultimately make decisions with the input and concerns of the membership in mind. We are an egalitarian democracy that strives to serve all, and yet we know that there will often be those who are in disagreement with certain decisions that are made. But the beauty of any democratic system is that we all can express our concerns and that we all have access to the leadership. Any American, with certain limitations, of course, can become president, just as any congregation member in good standing can serve on its governing body or become an officer or president.
However, we cannot all be leaders at the same time. We all have the responsibility to work with our leadership to continue to make our individual congregations the best they can be. We are all indeed holy. We read this numerous times in the Torah. But our holiness does not mean that we can simply “take over” whenever we want, as Korah might have us believe. But being a holy individual does mean that we each have an obligation to one another and to our community as a whole to keep our actions and motives aligned toward making our congregation a place where holiness dwells, and where we can find God and community in all that we do.