From the Bamat: Parashat Korach

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I may as well be honest and say that as I contemplate my first summer as Director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, I am somewhat drawn to the narrative of the rebellion of Korach—certainly getting people to follow the rules of Camp would prove much easier if the ground opened up to swallow the rebels every once in a while.  And, beyond the punishment meted out by heaven to those who would dare to disobey the words of Moses and Aaron, there is the little matter of the miraculous flowering of Aaron’s staff, surely a better statement of authority than any job title could ever be.  Truly, this parasha can seem a veritable cornucopia of support for absolute and unquestioned loyalty to the leaders of the community.

But then there is this: the challenge of Korach’s rebellion, the rallying cry of the rebels, strikes me as being utterly fair.  “All the community are holy,” the Torah reports the rabble rousers to have said, “All of them, and the Lord in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”  While the rabbis in Pirkei Avot famously declare that Korach’s argument was not “for the sake of heaven” it is interesting to note that the midrash tends to sharpen Korach’s main claim.  According to a midrash in the Tanchuma, what Korach means here is that the entirety of the people of Israel stood at Sinai and heard God’s commands.  “You alone did not hear God,” the midrash imagines Korach to be saying to Moses and Aaron, “So where does your superiority over us come from?”  Given the fact that Korach is viewed—both in the Torah and in the midrash—as one of the great villains of our history, it is interesting that his most important claim against the leadership of Moses and Aaron is not so easily dismissed.

In the end, the problem our tradition has with Korach and his co-conspirators is not the content of their claim but the content of their character.  The rebels of our parasha are assumed to have been attacking Moses and Aaron for their own elevation, not out of any altruistic desire for the people as a whole, and certainly not as a means by which to democratize the leadership of Israel.  Korach wanted to be the High Priest (he was, after all, a scion of the tribe of Levi) and Datan and Aviram, as leaders of the tribe of Reuven, seemed to assume that their ancestor’s status as the eldest son of Jacob entitled them to rule the people of Israel.  In the end, this was a struggle over power, not over principle.

And yet the principle remains, for Korach’s claim is surely correct, whatever his own intentions may have been in making it.  God was quite explicit at the moment of revelation in Exodus 19, telling the assembly of Israel, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  God’s decision to become immanent in the midst of the people means that the people are all exactly the same distance away from the Divine.  Moses may have ascended into the cloud to speak to God at Sinai, but, by the end of the book of Exodus, God is dwelling in the Tabernacle and thus sanctifies the entire community as one.  Korach may have been wrong in his assumptions about who should lead, but his contention about the core value a leader must recognize is commendable, and remains valuable to this day.

Camp is a holy community, and, like Israel in the desert, every single member of our community is equally holy.  We must strive to make concrete that rather lofty ambition.  Whether the person is camper or staff, new to camp or long-time veteran, whether they are with us for the full summer or just visiting for the day—all those who enter our gates are valued members of the sacred community we seek to build. There are leaders of this camp of course, and such there must be.  But leadership in our Camp community cannot simply be a matter of power, nor of authority; leadership at Camp can be exercised by any person in any position who helps to build a community of passion, caring and joy.  As we begin the Shabbat of shavua hachana (staff week) here at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, it is my hope that we will find a way to create the community Korach claimed to want: a community defined not by hierarchy, but by holiness.  There are many different roles at camp, many different jobs.  But, in the end, our intrinsic value to the community is determined by only one thing: we are here, together.  This is what Korach could not understand, and why his rebellion failed.  We are, all of us, holy.  Let us begin with that, and see where this summer can take us.


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