How Do Former Slaves Create a Community?


KORACH, Numbers: 16:1-18:32

Korach is the halfway point on our journey through the challenging terrain of the book of Numbers. Each summer, this troubling portion calls out for interpretation, posing questions we had not previously noticed, hinting at options for alternative routes through the burning sand. This year, Korach's and Dathan and Abiram's intertwined rebellions against established leadership shed an eerie light on contemporary power struggles across the globe.

Professor Tamara Kohn Eskenazi in The Torah: A Woman's Commentary notes that "The book [of Numbers] is itself a kind of wilderness, a seemingly chaotic combination of narratives, laws and lists … ." In this uncharted wild space, the people Israel attempt, one by one and as a collective, to emerge from slavery.

They travel by fits and starts, complaining and wailing, forgetting the indignities of servitude and remembering only the "comfort" of the routine of forced labor and regular, if inadequate, rations. When humans suffer, we first turn on one another, blaming those nearest to us for "getting us into this mess." How will such behavior serve the Israelites as they craft a new culture in a new land?

This portion begins as Korach, joined by 250 "representatives of the Israelites," challenges that Moses and Aaron have "gone too far": "For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Holy One is in their midst." As in the previous portion, Moses continues to attempt to maintain his power and authority, while simultaneously appeasing the Holy One's fury at the people's complaints.

When God warns Moses and Aaron, "Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant," the brothers plead with God. "When one member sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" They reframe Korach's words, recalling Moses' reminder to God that, as Holy One, God is "slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression … ." Moses and Aaron acknowledge both the importance — and the limits — of Korach's challenge.

This exchange reflects a question posed throughout Numbers: What is the role of the individual in the life of the community? Numbers, which begins with a census, explores the issue of who is counted and who does the counting. Undergirding these questions is the historical context of the Israelites' journey. How does a mixed multitude of ex-slaves become a community of free people? And who shall lead them into the next chapter of their journey?

We know that this story will end badly, but the ferocity of the rebels' punishment is startling: "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households." The survivors who gape into the smoking inferno took to heart this warning about looking back and moving forward.

Like our biblical ancestors, we, too, must listen hard to all who claim to speak for us, and attend with particular discernment to those who speak with religious authority. As the authority of Moses and Aaron is re-established, we see how the Israelites are being prepared for new roles and responsibilities in the land that they will enter. As we conclude this portion, we readers are invited to imagine the construction of a society where everyone counts — and where compassionate, responsive leaders support the health and well-being of all who continue their wilderness journey.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the Worship Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.


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