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Korach and the Right Side of History

There is no shortage of self-righteousness in the world right now, and no shortage of pretty words being deployed to justify it.
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July 11, 2024
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Every year, Parsha Korach presents a difficulty for progressive Jews. How is it that Korach is the enemy of this story? Why is he doomed to be swallowed whole by the earth when his theology is so egalitarian, so enlightened, and so inclusive?

“All the congregation are holy, every one of them,” he exclaimed at Moses and Aaron. “And the Lord is among them” (Numbers 16:3).

But the problem was never what Korach said. Of course the people are holy. Of course God is in their midst. If there was no truth in these words, they wouldn’t have been recorded in the Torah for us to study. This is the teaching of the Ishbitzer Rabbi. 

We shouldn’t be so easily fooled by slogans and pretty words. To understand, we should look closely at how Moses responds to Korach. “Now that [God] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” (Numbers 16:10)

Rather than engaging with Korach’s point about the holiness of the community, he assumes that what Korach really wants is not to demolish the hierarchy but rather to place himself at its top.

There is good reason for Moses to assume this. After all, his complaint makes no sense. Moses has never denied that the community is holy. Indeed, all he wants from them is to live holy lives with God in their midst. To whatever extent that he can bring them closer to God, he does so, as in Parasha Beha’alotcha, when he exclaimed “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).

So Moses saw through Korach’s pretense, but did Korach himself see through it? It remains unclear if Korach was trying to willfully deceive, or if he had truly managed to convince himself of his own self-righteousness. 

There is no shortage of self-righteousness in the world right now, and no shortage of pretty words being deployed to justify it. Under the banner of liberation, equality, and peace, Jews have been harassed on campus, assaulted in Paris, bludgeoned to death with a loudspeaker, barred from entering their synagogues, told to go back to Poland, or labeled “pro-genocide” by a sitting congresswoman.

We can ask the same question that we ask of Korach. Do they know? Do they know that their “righteous anger” conceals an ancient hatred? Or have they fully convinced themselves, as they chant “Long Live Oct. 7” and “Globalize the Intifada,” that they are standing for what is good, noble, and true?

Do they know that their “righteous anger” conceals an ancient hatred? Or have they fully convinced themselves, as they chant “Long Live Oct. 7” and “Globalize the Intifada,” that they are standing for what is good, noble, and true? 

One of the most disturbing realizations that I recall from my childhood was the moment when I discovered that evil people were not like the black-clad, mustache-twirling villains from cartoons. In most cases, they were people who thought that what they were doing was good for the world.  

This insight seems to crash into a sense of moral relativism and nihilism. If we all think that our cause is just and the cause of our enemies is evil, who is to say what’s right?

The Ishbitzer offers a suggestion: Abandon your anger. Korach’s anger, he teaches, was not righteous anger. It was just the regular kind — hateful, self-motivated, and petty. The difference between the two is stark, but subtle, and it is not something a person can sort out for him or herself. The heat of such intense feeling prevents us from discernment. 

If you feel that your rage is righteous, be careful. I say this to all of us, including myself. Don’t give into anger. Don’t think in slogans. Don’t be distracted by pretty words. Let things quiet down within you. Then you will be able to challenge your own assumptions and better discern your true motivations. 

Remember, before he was swallowed by the earth, Korach also thought he was on the right side of history.


Matthew Schultz is a Jewish Journal columnist and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives in Boston and Jerusalem.  

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