Friday, June 15, 2018

Parashat Korah: Authenticity

A Message for Parashat Korah 2017
Click here to view as PDF

The story of Korah’s uprising and subsequent demise are well-known. The larger context and details of his story generally fade from our minds, however, as we narrowly associate Korah with his bizarre ending. Similar to our difficulty with separating Esav from his lentil soup or distinguishing Bilaam from his donkey, we tend to identify Korah by his fatal fall into that gaping God-made pit. This tendency has unfortunately obscured our vision from the clear lessons of his story.

A full understanding of the unusual death of Korah requires a proper contextualization of its circumstances. The Torah is replete with rebellions punished by death. Although each uprising differed from the other in specific motives and outcomes, the general narrative is generally the same: rebellion against God or His messengers leads to ultimate death by seemingly natural causes such as fire, snake bites or defeat at battle. Why was Korah’s punishment so different? What was the underlying logic for punishing Korah and his assembly by means of the extraordinary death of the ground swallowing them alive?

The parashah first introduces Korah by means of his action – “va-yikah Korah – Korah took people along with him on his mission.[1] Indeed, this action quickly emerged as a recurring theme in his mission, as we are soon told that he “gathered” with his co-conspirers around Moshe and Aharon,[2] and then “gathered the whole community” against them.[3] This recurrent action reflects Korah’s extreme lack of self-identity and personal conviction. He was incapable of conducting this confrontation on his own, and instead needed to constantly turn to the opinion and support of others.

Korah’s articulation of his claim against Moshe and Aharon further highlights his deep-set flaw:

כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה' וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה'.
For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is God, and why should you raise yourselves up over God’s assembly? (Bemidbar 16:3)

Korah could not fathom the concept and value of individuality.
It is against this backdrop that God commanded Moshe and Aharon: “Divide yourselves from this community and I will put an end to them in an instant” (16:21). His demand stood in stark contrast to the actions of Korah, and encouraged a strong sense of authenticity and individuality.
At a defining moment of the controversy, Moshe was able to penetrate Korah’s deepest flaws, as he exclaimed:

הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה' וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם. וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת כָּל אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם כְּהֻנָּה.
Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of God’s Mishkan and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levi’im with you, do you seek the Kehunah too?

Moshe’s accusation pointed to a flaw that ran deeper than greed. Korah’s inability to suffice with his status as a Levi represented his inability to comfortably self-identify. Moshe was urging him to stop analyzing what others have, how they act or what they think and to instead focus on himself.

Korah’s lack of self-identity seems extreme. But is it really so different than our present state of being? Can we in fact find a sense of individuality in any realm of our lives? Philosopher Yehudah Gellman highly doubted it, and wrote:
This is the predicament of modern man. He is so saturated with reflexive portrayals of others’ lives, of others’ visions, of their forms of life, that he loses his authenticity.[4]
The close spatial proximity of our residences, social media’s tendency to reveal the private, and technology’s continued success at interconnecting all of humanity have rid us of the ability to think or act on our own. Our decisions are instead dictated by others. What “they think” and how “they act” have emerged as our moral compasses in navigating our own life’s paths. Do we stand a chance at achieving even a sliver of authenticity in our lifetimes?

Barely. The rabbis taught (Ta’anit 11a), “When a person dies all of his deeds are displayed before him.” The existential philosophers furthered this notion by suggesting that the path to authenticity in one’s lifetime is paved by an awareness of death. Consider, for example, the self-reflection of neurologist Oliver Sacks, weeks after discovering his life-ending disease:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts…I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, and my friends…When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual. To find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.[5]
The moment of death divorces man of a “they” vision, and forces him to examine his life and deeds through his “I” lenses.
There was no better punishment for the identity-lacking Korah than lowering him to death alive. It was in those few moments, as he descended into the ground and stared the Angel of Death straight in the eyes, that Korah could finally come to terms with his own self-identity.

Memento mori – remember that you have to die,” the slave positioned behind the victorious general would say upon his triumph in Ancient Rome. Several pesukim in Kohelet and Mishlei and various statements of the hakhamim similarly remind one that he will ultimately die. More than just a combative measure against haughtiness, this recognition serves to engender individuality and authenticity.

But perhaps death is not the only way. Maybe a few transformative moments can also do the trick. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, was often asked, “What is the meaning of life?” In his Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:
I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms…One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it…Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked…[6]
In those rare (but not that rare) moments of existential solitude, as the feelings of “I am different” begin to set in, stop and search for your true inner self. Fighting the instinct to immediately “gather together” with everyone else, seize the opportunity to “divide yourself” and to think about what you believe in, what you stand for and who you are.

[1] Based on Rashi’s second explanation to 16:1 (s.v. va-yikah).
[2] “They gathered around Moshe and Aharon…” (16:3).
[3] “Korah gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed” (16:19).
[4] Yehudah Gellman, “Teshuvah and Authenticity,” Tradition, 20 (3), Fall 1982, pg. 250.
[5] Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life,” reprinted in Gratitude (Toronto, Canada, 2015), pg. 18-20.
[6] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston, MA, 2006), pg. 108-9.