Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then lift you up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (Numbers 16:1-3)
What is Korach saying in accusation to Moses and Aaron? The biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz notes the construction of the grammar of Korach’s statement which doesn’t say that the community (a single, collective unit) IS holy, but that “all of the congregation ARE holy, every one of them” – in other words Korach sees a group of individuals, he does not see a sharing and mutual entity. And so this careless slip in his language gives him away – Korach is not interested in the Israelite people becoming a holy nation, he is seeking a reward for personal ambition.
We live in a world where it sometimes seems that each is out for themselves, at the expense of the rest of society. It is all too easy to demonise those we see as ‘other’, and often we are assisted in this by the rhetoric of those who should know better – leading to a rise in xenophobic rants, in attacks on other religions or ethnic groups as well as on those who are vulnerable economically and dependent upon the State for their maintenance.
When we allow ourselves to separate from the community, when we allow society to fragment and individual’s desires to outweigh the good to society, we are on dangerous ground. Korach and his followers were, doing exactly this. They believed that the holiness of the individuals was of greater worth than the holiness of the community.
Our modern post enlightenment world which so insistently values personal autonomy above the best outcome for society, has led us to a problematic place. Politicians have lost their reputations with the public, as have many other professions who are seen as greedy or corrupt or at least morally negligent. Those who give back to society are not as valued as those who make money and the desire for celebrity is becoming for many an end in itself.
Yet still we doggedly read our biblical texts – “Rav Lachem – you have taken on too much for yourself” is the accusation that flies both ways between Moses and Korach. It may be true of them both, hubris meant that both lost touch with reality with terrible consequences for both men, and it may be true of us also. We take on too much for our own selves, forgetting the value of community and the importance of an integrated society, diverse and inclusive. The story of Korach and his focus on the individual is helpful for us to get our own morality back into a better balance.