This week in our Torah reading cycle we come to the story of Korach.
Korach was a member of the Levite tribe, the tribe in which was invested the mantle of leadership of the Israelite community. Moses was of the Levites, and so was Aaron, his brother, whose line became the priesthood. The other non-priest Levites were charged with other aspects of communal service, mostly around the organization and transportation of the Tabernacle.
The story of Korach is the story of rebellion, in which he leads a revolt against the leadership of Moses. Korach assembles 250 leaders and makes the charge against Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
This challenge sends shock waves through the community. Moses challenges their challenges saying, isn’t it enough that you have an important position as a Levite, do you want more? Moses goes on to claim that Korach’s rebeilion isn’t just against Moses, but against God, since it was God who set up the system the way it is. Korach does not stand down, and he and his followers are swallowed up by the earth.
This last detail has always struck me as particularly terrifying. Sure there have been punishments before, but here, where the Torah describes the earth opening up underneath people’s feet, them falling into the ground, and the earth closing up over them has a particular note of horror that fire and brimstone lacks. Maybe it is the finality of it-after a destruction like that of Sodom and Gemorrah in Genesis there are ashes and smoke. After Korach and his gang are swallowed up, it is as if nothing happened.
We can argue about the merits of Korach’s rebellion. He was not an unsympathetic figure. His claim that everyone was holy is a sentiment that we can all get behind. Moses’s questions his altruistic motives, however, claiming that Korach is just out for more power. Plus, Korach’s call to overturn the system of communal organization-while sometimes necessary “in the course of human events”-also holds within it the potential for chaos and anarchy.
But putting aside that argument for a moment, the Torah’s judgment about Korach (and later Talmudic tradition holds it up) is that his challenge is dangerous to the Israelite community and one that needs to be eradicated. Completely.
We see this today. That which challenges us as a society sometimes needs to be eradicated, so much so that it must be completely written out of the books. So much so that we come to a time in which we look back and wonder how it happened in the first place.
Today is Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. It has been expanded to celebrate the emancipation of African-Americans in general and the abolition of slavery in the United States. The history of slavery in this country is one that we wish to see swallowed in the earth, removed from our society with no vestige left behind.
And this month is Pride Month, when we celebrate the LGBT community. Inherent in that celebration is the recognition of the gains made in non-discrimination, marriage equality and full acceptance. The rate discrimination in marriage is falling in this country is astounding.
[Our local Olympia community will celebrate Pride this weekend, and Temple Beth Hatfiloh will be marching in the Pride Parade on Sunday. Join me at the Capitol building between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. for a noon start. Let’s have a good showing!]
Discrimination based on race or sexual orientation-indeed, discrimination in general-is something that challenges us as a society, and like Korach’s challenge, is something which must be completely eradicated. But we know, too, that simply eradicating formal systems of discrimination does not eradicate the more informal systems of discrimination. Eliminating slavery does not end racism, homophobia still exists as the march of marriage equality continues.
This too is hinted at in the story of Korach. For while the Torah speaks of him and his rebellion being completely wiped away, the story is retained in the text and we still tell it year after year. Vestiges of systems of oppression linger, even when those systems are abolished. The story of Korach and the fact of its telling reminds us of this. We have made gains, but we have more to do.