Dealing with Discontents: Rioters, Rebels and Plagues

Parashat Korah Numbers 16-18

In these past weeks, one cannot help but get the impression that the Torah, and particularly numbers, is concerned with the politics of managing discontent. However, the book starts with structural order and organization, applying those to the immediate environment, taking a census and the management of sacred icons, in particular, the Arc of the Covenant. These are the two poles – rebellion, discontent and dissension versus unity and the priority of solidarity and community.

In dealing with the first, with divisions, the tale in Numbers moves from administrative organization to exclusions, its causes and conditions, first from the tribe and then from a marriage, and then voluntary exclusions that are self-imposed, such as the abstinence of the Nazirites. But the volume always turns its back on denial towards donations and gift giving. 

With respect to the theme of dissension, chapter 9 paints the first sign of dissent. Though being near and tending to the sick and dying may exemplify the greatest virtue, men who had been near a corpse were excluded from the Passover offering. Moses turns to God and God offers a substitute sacrifice. The accommodation seems to satisfy the dissidents. The Israelites then receive their marching orders. And we are then returned to a new interpersonal story, the one between Moses and his brother-in-law. Hobab, son of Jethro (Reuel), the Midianite. Hobab announces that he is leaving, going back to his tribal homeland. Moses persuades him to stay by offering him the same portion as everyone.  Treatment of everyone equally with justice is the main positive thesis.

Numbers 9:14 “And when a stranger who resides with you would offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites of the Passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen of the country.”

Numbers 15:14-15 “And when throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord – as you do, so shall it be done by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time and throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord.”

Hobab, however, was not the only one who was discontented. Fires were set in the midst of the community by God. The burning and the looting were destructive expressions of discontent. The people then really cried out and the fires died down. However, the discontent had spread. The riffraff complained about the food – no meat, only manna. The Israelites had turned into regular whiners.  Moses could not take it. He asked to resign. God intervened and reorganized his duties so that the role of the courts and handing out judgments was transferred to 70 elders, 6 from each tribe, less Eldad and Medad. At the same time, God eased the cause of the discontent by providing plenty of meat. Provisioning by the welfare state in its earliest and simplistic expression became the norm.

Eldad and Medad began acting like prophets. While everyone expected Moses to be upset, he was not. However, when his older sister, jealous of Moses’ primacy, supported by Aaron, uttered a racial slur against his second wife, a Cushite, Moses called both Miriam and Aaron out. And God remonstrated them for not recognizing the uniqueness of Moses. Presumably, that is why Eldad and Medad could act like prophets but never be ones, while Miriam and Aaron were chosen as well as Moses by the Lord, but not to be Moses’ equal. Inequality in performance and duty was a reality but equality of treatment was an aspiration. Again, the punishment of exclusion from the camp is imposed, this time on Miriam. Even royalty cannot be spared from the hand of the law.

Then there is a much bigger rebellion. While all twelve princes of the tribes sent out to scout the land report back on its bounty, ten of them also report that the inhabitants who live there are formidable and protected by walled cities. Instead of infusing the people with courage, they depressed the morale. There could be no invasion. This time the punishment was widespread and extreme. Other than Caleb and Joshua who tried to inspire the people, the other leaders and all the members of the tribes over 20 years of age who gave into their fears were denied the right to enter the land and had to wander in the desert for forty years, though initially God threatened not to fulfil his promise to the Israelites at all. As was His pattern, God backed down in the face of incessant complaints, but only partially.

Korah is a different story of dissent again with even greater stakes and even more insightful revelations of the Torah political theory of rebellion and dissension versus solidarity and survival. Further, the punishment for the dissidents is extraordinary. Korah, a Levite and two descendants of the Reuben tribe lead 250 Israelites, including chiefs and men of repute – this was not a rebellion of the street – to challenge Moses and Aaron in their leadership roles. Like Miriam’s reprimand of Moses, the rebellion is instigated in the name of equality of status. Why are the two, Moss and Aaron, granted superior recognition?

The key is recognition by God, as was the case with the much more minor case of Miriam’s dissent. The Levites, though not priests, already had a superior status in the Tabernacle. Further, Dathan and Abirman would not even come to talk to Moses about their complaints and differences concerning Moses lording it over them. This time the rebels were not exorcised from the community. Rather, the community deserted them and left them isolated in their tents. As they emerged with their wives and children, they are swallowed up by the earth and destined for Sheol (Hades?). They with their wives and children are buried alive and vanish from the congregation of Israelites. Fire burned up the rest of the 250 rebels.

However, the Israelites were upset with Moses over what happened lest they too be subject to extreme punishment. They railed against Moses and Aaron. And once again God threatened to wipe them all out. But Moses and Aaron pleaded on their behalf and “made expiation for the people” as the plague spread among them. After 14,700 had died from that plague, much more than the 8,500 who have died from the Covid 19 plague in all of Canada, Moses and Aaron managed to isolate the community from further devastation.

Note the initial act in God’s dealing with Korah – burying him and his family alive, far worse than being burned alive by fire or killed in a plague. They die in the most unnatural of deaths to validate the leadership of Moses and Aaron as their own claims are vitiated. There is neither a slow death from a virus nor even a swifter death by fire, but one where their death cannot be observed and their process of dying mourned. Instead, the death itself is unseen and unlamented. There can be no bedside visits. And Moses and Aaron are given no chance to intervene as they do with the plague.

As we know from the current Covid 19 pandemic, plague is synonymous with separation, isolation and, to some degree, exile from the community. In the case of Korah and his partners in rebellion, they are isolated as well, but the community separates itself from them and, in effect, goes into a form of exile. Albert Camus understood this phenomenon. For the safest place in a plague is in a remote place – like the hamlet in south-central France, Panelier, where he fled in 1942 when both his lungs contracted tuberculosis, and where he wrote the bulk of his novel, The Plague, or the city of Oran in Algeria where Camus’ wife found refuge.

However, the hamlet was not only a refuge from a “plague.” It was a refuge for Jews, 3,500 of them, fleeing the hand of death that would be inflicted by the Nazis. They were issued false papers and given recognition as French. The Korah parashat is much more a story of salvation from the plague and salvation from the wrath of the universe than about the horror inflicted on Korah.

The parashat concerns the politics of solitude, the awful solitude and isolation of being disappeared versus the survival solitude of retreat from the fires and rages and storms of civilization to live for another day. As one fled the invasion of the disease even more than the invasion of the Nazis, there was suffering – food deprivation, long lines at stores to purchase items needed for survival and even, to some degree, one’s freedom as laws are introduced to force certain behaviour, such as wearing masks, to protect the rest of the community.

In Camus’ novel, a front-line health worker is both the narrator and, in one sense, the hero, Dr. Bernard Rieux (Camus’ version of Moses), a narrator based on a doctor in real life, Doctor Paul Riou. Like Moses, he was fearless and humble, totally lacking in pride even as he served his “divinely” ordained mission. Nor did he have an ounce of resentment against his enemy upstarts. It was as if he was immune from the virus of envy that plagued his critics and the dissenters in the community. Rather than a novel of powerlessness and existential absurdity, the allegory is really an expansion of the Korah story. Those who would organize attacks against the Nazis, the Korahs of the world, with the inevitable reprisals, are not the heroes but rather become the ones swallowed up by the Nazi killing machine.

Though these are stories of envy and enmity, rivalry and historical election, of isolation and exile, they are also stories of human solidarity. For that is Korah’s ultimate sin. It was he who set himself apart from the community while Moses was set apart by history and always retained his ultimate loyalty to the people and solidarity with them, especially when the community was threatened by forces beyond his control. The moral issue is about self-effacement versus arrogance and egoism, identification with the ordinary even when cast by history into extraordinary roles, kindness, empathy and consideration of others versus any self-interest or personal ambition. At the same time, Moses was not a pacifist. The treatment of Korah was not non-violent but, in fact, violated the most fundamental human obligation, to sit by the bedside of a loved one and offer succor and comfort. Moses was human-all-too-human as a leader. Korah aspired to be a hero.

The story of Krah can be read as a story of punishment, but also as a story of rescue, as the story of Moses in the continuing saga of his dedication to the rescue of the Jewish people. It is a story of solidarity even more than rebellion.

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