There comes a time when one must stand up for one’s beliefs. Torah and Judaism encourage rebellion, yet it must be for the benefit of the world, not for one’s self-edification.
In this week’s parshah, Korach no longer wishes to follow Moses’ leadership and wants to be a leader instead, even though God speaks to Moses and not to Korach.
So Korach brings together a group of disgruntled Israelites and leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The goal of the revolt is not to better serve the people. Korach leads it because he wants to have the mantle of leadership for himself.
In Judaism, rebelling does not have a negative connotation. Actually, rebellion for the correct reason is heralded. Almost 2,000 years ago, the schools of Hillel and Shammai set forth the concept of machloket l’shem shamayim, the disagreement for the sake of heaven. The two schools, arguing about Jewish law, did not argue to improve their own lives but rather to help other Jews live better under the law. Their intent was correct.
Let me give you an example. One of their many disagreements concerned the correct way to light the Chanukah menorah. Shammai stated that on the first night, all the candles should be lit so that the glory of the holiday could be demonstrated. He then proposed that one should diminish the brightness by lighting one less candle each night until only one candle is lit.
Hillel stated that the holiday should build in anticipation and that one should add to the candles each night rather than diminish the light. We know through our practice that Hillel won the conflict. Yet, there was respect between the two during their debates.
Korach was the opposite of Hillel and Shammai. Korach wanted the glory of the leadership without considering how his intentions would influence the community around him. Ironically, Moses did not want the mantle of leadership. He was a reluctant prophet. Moses argued with God in private many times, asking why he was chosen and not someone else. Yet, while Moses argued with God privately, Korach rebelled against Moses and God publicly. In doing so, Korach publicly called God’s authority into question.
There was nothing wrong with Korach questioning Moses’ leadership. According to our tradition, we should call out leaders who do not act justly. The lesson of this Torah portion is about the manner in which we act. Through this parshah, we are taught that one must act with kavod, respect, toward God and others. When we act with respect, intending to better others’ lives and not just our own, then we act l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.
Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is rabbi educator at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, Virginia.