Wednesday, 05 Jun 2013

Written by Esther Hugenholtz

Empowerment, Not Entitlement

When I was about to set off for university, my mother made me some golden promises. ‘It will be the best time of your life’.

A ‘flower child’ of the late 1960’s, university had engendered that promise for her. For her it was a time of empowerment, self-discovery, of a mapping out of her democratic ideals which formed the ethics of my upbringing.

University did fulfil that promise for me also. I became a student activist, read political literature, went on marches, and sought answers to the big questions in life. I was invited to nurture my intellect, encouraged to stand up for my beliefs and, most importantly, to be grateful for the privilege of exercising my basic human rights.

Freedom of speech, assembly and the ballot. All these things are infinitely precious and should be cherished by any civilised society. As it is infinitely precious, our freedom is also quite delicate.

Given this perspective, parashat Korach is shocking to our sensibilities.

The Torah presents us with a scenario. Korach, descendant of the House of Levi, rose up with Dathan, Abiram and On to challenge the Mosaic leadership together with 250 tribal leaders, ‘chosen in the assembly, men of repute’.
What Korach proceeds to say is striking:

“You have gone too far!”, “ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim uv’tocham Adonai, u’madua titnas’u al kehal Adonai?” – “For all the community are holy, all of them and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Num. 16:31)

Korach seems to make a valid point. Over the last few weeks, we have seen Moses and Aaron consolidate their leadership. I’ve always felt a certain kinship with Korach. Wasn’t he the ultimate democratic activist who invoked the right to self-determination?

The Torah’s narrative seems unfair, cruel even. Rather than rewarding Korach’s initiative by democratising Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership, Moses challenges him. He lures Korach and his followers to offer incense in fire pans, a ritual intended only for the Priesthood. As we know from parashat Shemini and Acharei Mot a number of weeks ago, that this is setting the rebellion up for failure. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, offered a ‘strange fire’ out of what seemed genuine devotion and paid for it with their lives. Bringing non-appointed offers to the Tabernacle is deadly.
We need not be surprised, then, that the offering is unsuccessful. Moses seems to taunt them by saying, “Come morning and the Eternal will make sure who is His and who is holy and will grant access to Himself.” This is a challenge that Korach and his supporters cannot refuse.

The next day dawns and tension is mounting in the camp. The Israelites have had to overcome disappointment after disappointment, culminating in the ultimate disillusionment: they are not allowed to enter the Land because of the fearful reports of the spies. In last week’s reading, parashat Sh’lach Lecha, their unfortunate fate was sealed. This is a thoroughly embittered people who have just learned that they will not only be forced to live in the desert but to die in it too. They will never reach the Promised Land. They have scant little to lose and plenty of anger simmering just below the surface. The slightest provocation will turn this assembly into a mob.

Both the revolutionaries and the powers that be prepare for the face-off. Korach and his supporters offer the incense and almost immediately, in a terrifying sequence of events, the earth opens and swallows them whole. The 250 tribal leaders undergo a similar fate as Nadav and Avihu did: they perish in the fire that God strikes them down with.

The Torah then pushes on with her narrative but we are left dumbfounded. Is this how Moses – and in a manner of speaking, God – deal with dissent? Is this the reality that Torah holds up as an ideal—an unrelenting theocracy? Is this how noble dissidents are done away with? Surely, this is the kind of conduct that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would report about!

But this is only the first layer of the story. In the world of politics, there is always a subtext. Was Korach really a democrat? Was he really interested in empowering the people? And was Moses’ crack-down all that unjustified? The Torah herself gives us hints for a more nuanced reading.

The first hint lies in Korach’s lineage. He is the descendant of Levites. He was to grab power for himself as he aspires to become the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. He is not really interested in emancipating the Israelites. Rather, he is always looking to challenge the rule of law. The Midrash recounts how Korach challenged Moses with a variety of Halachic problems: ‘if a house holds several Torah scrolls, does it still need mezuzot?’ Moses answered in the affirmative. This questioning is done to undermine the rule of law itself.

Another hint lies in his claim: ‘kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim’ – ‘all of the community is holy’. Note the use of the present tense. But is that true? Are we ‘holy’ by default or is that mere demagogy? The populist knows how to pander to his audience. Rather, the Torah commands us to become holy, using the future tense. Holiness is not a given but a process that refines our characters and shapes our values. The quest for holiness is about empowerment through the lens of mitzvot, not about smug entitlement.

Furthermore, Moses is more democratic than Korach paints him to be. In parashat Beha’alotcha, Moses muses ‘if only all my people were prophets’ in response to Medad’s and Eldad’s spontaneous prophesying. The Torah does seek to include and democratise but through transparent structures and rule of law, not through the insincere demagogy of one ambitious and entitled leader.

What I learned during my University days, I continue to learn with Torah. Freedom and accountability cannot exist without responsibility. To be empowered is not just to make demands but to contribute to a world where each voice can be heard and where holiness is a quest for the highest ethical imperative. Surely, that is a more compelling message than the quick fix answers of demagogues. Our critical discernment is the golden promise of democracy in the making.

Esther Hugenholtz
Herefordshire Liberal Community

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.