Why do Liberal Jews continue to read the Torah? For many reasons: its timeless ethical teachings; the fascinating stories of our ancestors and the beginnings of our people; because the tales it tells remain relevant for our own lives today – not least those centred on human relationships and struggles.
And there are so many struggles. This week’s Torah portion, Korach, foams with rebellious fury against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
From the outset, it is clear who the rebels are – and, significantly, their identities provide direct clues to the reasons for their rebellion. We read at Numbers 16:1:
Now Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Levi, and Datan, and Aviram the sons of Eli’av, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuben, took men.
The word ‘men’ is not in the Hebrew. Beginning with the verb, Va-yikach Korach, ‘Now Korach took…’ the verse does not state what it is that Korach ‘took’. The mediaeval commentators Ramban (born in Gerona, Spain, in 1194), and Sforno (born at Cesena in Italy, c.1475), connect ‘took’ with what follows in verse 2: ‘And they rose up before Moses, with 250 men from among the Israelites, princes of the congregation, the elect ones of the assembly, men of renown.’
It is easy to see why leading figures mib’ney Yisrael, ‘from among the Israelites’ might have felt aggrieved: they were not from the firstborn tribe of Reuben, or from the tribe of Levi, set apart for a special sacred role. But Korach was a Levite. And Datan, Aviram and On were Reubenites. So, what was their grievance?
Again, the details are crucial: ‘Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of K’hat, the son of Levi… Datan, and Aviram the sons of Eli’av, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuben.’ Numbers, chapter 3 makes it clear that Levites were to replace the Reubenites as the leading tribe (3:12; 44). Further, as the chapter goes on to give details of the Levitical families, it emerges that Korach was a first cousin to Aaron and Moses: Korach’s father Yitzhar and Aaron and Moses’ father, Amram – both the sons of K’hat – were brothers (3:27-32).
First cousins: a very close relationship. Numbers 3 reveals that as a grandson of K’hat, Korach, came the closest of all the Levitical families to the priesthood – his family had responsibility for the sacred furnishings, but they could not lift them uncovered, nor touch them – lest they died (Numbers 3:31; 4:15). Only Aaron and his sons could handle them.
So near, and yet so far… As a sociology student at LSE in the 1970s, I learnt about the concept of ‘relative deprivation’. Those close enough to the ‘haves’ to be acutely aware of what they have not, often experience ‘relative deprivation’ and act accordingly. Support for Hitler in the German elections of 1933, for example, came overwhelmingly, not from the urban working class, but from the lower middle classes, the smallholders and traders whose status in society progressively declined during the period of industrialisation and economic expansion.
So, Korach was a victim of relative deprivation. Meanwhile, the Reubenites were forced to endure the humiliation of being displaced by the Levites. Evidently, the leaders of the rebellion against Moses and Aaron had very good reasons to be aggrieved.
As Liberal Jews, who see ourselves as questioners of authority we might readily acknowledge their grievance. But can we really feel sympathetic to the cause of these privileged men, itching for more power?
When we read the story of Korach and his fellow rebels, or the tale of the ten tribal leaders, who brought back an evil report of the land, in last week’s portion, Sh’lach L’cha, readers might be left wondering about the women who don’t even get a mention – except as unnamed ‘wives’ and ‘mothers’. And the absence of one woman in particular from these two stories – of Miriam, ha-n’vi’ah, ‘the prophet’ (Exodus 15:20), the eldest of the three sibling leaders of the Exodus, who was neither a wife, nor a mother – provides the most salutary commentary on the conflicts amongst the men, as they jockeyed for position.
According to Numbers 12 in B’ha’alot’cha, read two weeks ago, Miriam was the first to rebel – tellingly against the pre-eminence of Moses, whom she had saved from certain death when he was a baby (Exodus 2). Miriam was punished for speaking out against Moses with a temporary dose of a scaly white skin condition. Unlike Korach and his cohorts, she got off quite lightly, and the people did not journey on until she was brought back into the camp. But then, Miriam disappears from the narrative until next week’s portion, Chukkat, which briefly mentions her death – an episode related after a lacuna in the wilderness tale of 38 years (Numbers 20:1).
Miriam did not suffer, merely, from relative deprivation or displacement: her story was almost a completely omitted from the Torah. All we are left with are fragments (Exodus 2:1-10, 15:19-20, Numbers 12, Numbers 20:1). Reflecting on her designation as a ‘prophet’, the early rabbis filled in some gaps, teaching that ‘Miriam’s Well’ journeyed with the Israelites throughout their 40 years in the wilderness, only drying up after her death. Perhaps we, too, can play our part in restoring Miriam to the tales of our ancestors, by imagining how Miriam and the women of the camp lived – and how they may have responded to the power battles among the men. The Torah relates Moses’ reaction to Korach and his co-conspirators (Numbers 12:5ff.) How did Miriam respond to them?
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah