Korach: Remembering History

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

I hope everybody is have a pleasant and serene week- well, I would
imagine that most of us are at least having weeks better than the one
described in this week’s Torah portion, Korach, named for the
nefarious main character. Just to refresh our memories: Korach, along
with two buddies and a large gang of disgruntled tribal princes,
challenges Moshe and Aharon for leadership of the people. Korach and
his gang lose their bid for power and are swallowed up by the earth-
not a pretty scene for anybody.

Fast-forward several generations and the Israelites are living in the
Land, but things aren’t going so well: the tribes aren’t unified and
it’s hard to defend the borders and keep the peace (cf. the book of
Judges – the whole text, more or less- on this point.) A great
prophet, Shmuel [Samuel] is, like Moshe, both a political and judicial
leader, but the people want a king “like other nations.” (I Sam. 8)

So Shmuel appoints a king, Shaul, who promptly embarks on a great
military victory- so far, so good. Shmuel then takes Shaul to Gilgal
(where this week’s haftarah picks up the story), so the people can
reaffirm him as the new king, but Shmuel rebukes them for wanting a
king, and reiterates that he – Shmuel- has always been honest and
fair as leader of the people.

Gilgal is an interesting place – it’s where the Israelites first
crossed over the Jordan River into the Land; not only did a great
miracle of “crossing the waters” happen there, but memorial stones
were set up and the men of the wilderness generation were circumcised
before beginning to settle the Land. (Cf. Yehoshua/Joshua chapters 4
and 5.) Thus, our haftarah seems to be suggesting that Shmuel took the
people to Gilgal to remind them of their history- how the Holy One
brought them to the Land, and their own spiritual commitments,
symbolized by the covenant of circumcision.

Shmuel warns the people that a king may aggrandize himself and
oppress them; by taking them to Gilgal he reminds them that the nation
of Israel has principles and memories more powerful than even the
king, and which, in fact, must keep the king in check.

That all makes sense, but it’s astounding to realize that Shmuel is
himself is a direct descendant of Korach, his great-grandson, no less!
(See 1 Chronicles 6 for the genealogy.) Now we see an even more
poignant connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah: what
the great-grandfather, Korach, tried to tear apart, the
great-grandson, Shmuel, kept together. Korach tried to arrogate the
leadership for himself, but his descendant Shmuel willingly- albeit
reluctantly- turned the leadership over to Shaul, even when he had
great misgivings.

The connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah is more than
just contrasting Korach and Shmuel; it also suggests, perhaps, that
because Shmuel knew his own history, he wanted to impress history upon
the people (by taking them to Gilgal), so that they would not let the
new king unmoor them from the meaning of that history.

This interpretation is both powerful and poignant: powerful, because
it turns a personal sense of history into a compelling tool for social
leadership, and poignant, because we as readers know that a Korach
arises in every generation, from Biblical times onward. The good news
is that from a Korach can arise a Shmuel, a wise teacher, who brings
insight and ethics and a sense of history to the people of his or her
community. From painful history can come great insight and commitment-
that’s the line from Korach to Shmuel, a truth which endures in each
one of us and challenges us to great things.

Shabbat Shalom,


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