Parshat Korach: Numbers 16:1-18:32; I Samuel 11:14-12:22.
I remember when my wife and I were preparing to have our first son. We spent a long time trying to find just the right name; as part of that process, we consulted a Jewish name encyclopedia.
It was fascinating to read through the various names with their meanings and connections. The list included a few surprises. I was more than a bit shocked to turn the page and see … Korach. Right there among all the beautiful names that parents might wish to bestow upon their precious new baby. Korach; really?
Korach is the character who gives his own name to this week’s Torah portion. He was a great-grandson of Levi and a tribal leader who had tremendous influence among the Israelites as they wandered toward the Promised Land. He is famous for stoking a rebellion against Moses that eventually led to him and his followers being swallowed up by the earth in an act of Divine retribution (or at least a supernatural display meant to prevent any more attempts to usurp the authority of Moses).
My discomfort with seeing Korach’s name in the baby book stems from the deep and abiding fact that our tradition views Korach as a villain. He was an outlaw of the highest magnitude, whose story remains part of Torah as a dire warning to each generation. As a result, my assumption was that the baby book simply put in every name from the Bible, not thinking about whether or not they were actually good names (I also found Amalek and Goliath, among others).
But Jewish tradition has never been about the first reading of a story, and Korach’s tale demands more from us than simple condemnation. First of all, our Torah portion presents a complex theological problem. We would be hard-pressed to deny Korach’s assertion that “all the communities are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst.” (Numbers 16:3)
In fact, the idea that all of us are holy is a pillar of Jewish thought; none is closer to God than any other. Although it seems that Korach didn’t approve of God’s choice of leaders, which is a problem, the foundation of his argument is sound. Even today, we should be willing to stand up and protest when someone insists that he is inherently better or more worthy than anyone else; in doing so, we model the best of what Korach taught us.
Secondly, while the fate of Korach and his followers is fairly horrific, we are also left with a story that asks us to affirm the important roles that different members of our society play. After Korach’s death, the Torah takes advantage of this moment to clarify the responsibilities and benefits of the Levites, charged with serving the Temple. They may not be ultimate leaders like Moses or Aaron; but without them, the entire system would break down. In that sense, Korach’s legacy could easily be described as helping us to install the system that brought us through the desert and helped guide us in creating our new society in the Promised Land. Not too shabby for a villain.
Ultimately, I wonder if the baby book wasn’t pretty smart after all. Korach was certainly a villain, but he also left us with some impressive gifts; and that is something I believe we all wish for our own children, whatever their particular talents or passions might be.
Rabbi Mark Miller is senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.