Parashat Korah

Institutionalizing Freedom

The combination of Moses' vision and Korah's organizing skills is an instructive model for successful coalition building in the activist community.

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Several years ago, when the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Day closely preceded US Independence Day the celebration of freedom was frequently in the news. News coverage of the celebrations, whether laudatory or condemnatory, generally lacked serious analysis of the very concept causing so much excitement.

This week's Torah portion makes up the deficiency. The Korah story examines a set of political problems which plague the LGBT community, the United States, Israel and many other communities and societies: How can freedom be institutionalized? What resources are needed? How should they be used? Can a set of groups with conflicting goals create a community that safeguards the liberty of all? When conflict threatens stability, can freedom survive?

In Parshat Korah, stability turns out to be far more vital. Freedom for the Israelites means the escape from Egyptian slavery, now two years in the past. Like the United States hundreds of years after independence, or the LGBT community decades after the Stonewall Rebellion, the Israelites have moved into a new period, with new demands and priorities.

Institutionalized freedom means stable self-government, at which the Israelites are unpracticed. They, like many modern people who take formal democracy for granted but find it confusing and intractable in practice, find protesting easier than organizing, reacting easier than acting. Unused to compromise or cooperation, lacking agreed-on standards of behavior, they quarrel constantly.

Moses: Ambivalent Leader

Moses, the divinely inspired social architect, ends up forced into a judicial role. The Torah shows our ancestors bringing so many problems to him that he works from sunrise to sunset every day settling their disputes. At the same time, they don't trust him--having never known any authority they could trust.

In Parshat Korah, the people have finally departed from Mount Sinai. After the giving of the Torah, after the panicky construction of the Golden Calf, after power struggle, bloodshed, and near annihilation by a disappointed God, they break camp during a brief interlude of relative calm, before the community fragments again.

Some of the fragments begin to coalesce around an alternate leader, Korah. Unlike Moses, Korah is a skilled politician, one who understands and can motivate people. The Torah depicts Moses as an unwilling, untalented political leader. His strength is prophecy: the ability to envision an ideal society. The gap between his dreamed of organization and real people's fear-driven, self-perpetuating disorganization creates much of the painful drama of his life.

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Nina Wouk is an accountant who spends most of her free time serving on three ritual committees.