a black and white woodcut of them tumbling into a huge ravine
Korach, Dathan and Abiram being swallowed up by the ground (Gustave Dore, 1865)

What’s the answer when you feel dissed or insecure?


Korach

Numbers 16:1–18:32

I Samuel 11:14–12:22


I have a young friend, a child, who is contending with a new arrival at home. Even though she agrees that the latest member of the family is adorable, the attention being showered on her makes my little friend a little edgy.

Even her parents have noticed some regression into more baby-like behaviors on the part of this child, who is usually so eager to grow up. They are doing their best to provide reassurance that they adore her, and that she’s as important as she ever was. They know things will even out in time.

They also know it hardly matters that the new arrival is a puppy, not a newborn baby, that’s causing the balance to shift. It also hardly matters that my friend is a young child. We’ve all been there in our own distant or not-so-distant pasts. What is my young friend really asking when she whines or has a tantrum?

“Don’t I still count?”

“Aren’t I as smart (or cute or interesting or essential to you) as this new being?”

“Do you still love me?”

These questions — these anxieties of the soul — are not restricted to siblings and growing families.

A longtime single friend marries, and we’re thrilled for her while secretly wondering how her changed availability will affect us.

A spouse changes jobs and is suddenly happier and more compelled at work than he’s been in a long time. Will his new sense of purpose outside the home distract him from his loved ones inside the home?

A youngest child leaves for college, and her parents exult in her independence while at the same time thinking, “As you make your own life, how will we fit into it? Will you still need us?”

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for such questions. And when we do, we might see the events of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, in a new light.

Korach tells the story of a rebellion in the wilderness — a serious one, even by Israelite standards. It is 250 people strong, led by Korach the Levite and other prominent community members. Having had enough of what they perceive as Moses and Aaron’s elevation above the rest of the people, they close in on them, accusing them of having gone too far.

“All of this community is holy — all of them,” they burst out, “and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

Never mind that Moses has, on more than one occasion, longed to be as anonymous as the most anonymous Israelite. Never mind that the positions Aaron and Moses held were difficult on the best of days.

All that seems to matter in this moment is that someone, namely Korach, feels unseen and under-appreciated, and believes he would like some of the power reserved for Moses. Why do Korach’s leaders have more intimacy with God when, as he rightly states, all the community is holy?

With his trademark humility, Moses suggests a way to leave the decision to God as to who is holy and who shall lead. That decision comes down forcefully, and Korach and his band are swallowed up into the ground for their trouble.

But the messages of his story were not swallowed up with him. We are all a bit like Korach, much as we may not want to see it. We are all prone to feeling displaced, insecure and less than perfectly loved.

“It’s not fair!” — that battle cry of childhood — extends well beyond childhood, just like the questions raised by Korach’s rebellion have lasted beyond his life span.

The questions in and of themselves were valuable. They were about who we are as a community, and about the responsibility we all have of working to understand our true motivations so our questions or suggestions can serve a greater good. Korach’s fatal mistake lay in stirring rebellion and attempting to make others feel worse so he could feel better. With only himself on his mind, rather than the good of the community he bore some responsibility for, he could only lose.

In these echoes of Korach’s ill-fated rebellion and Moses’ dignified response, may we grow in our ability to become more discerning members of our community — ready to uphold the values of honesty, respect and the holiness of each one of us.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at rabbigutterman@tikvah.org.