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The First Hippie

Friday, 24 June, 2011 - 1:30 pm

The Midrash on this week’s Torah portion of Korach tells us a fascinating motivation for Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. We know that Korach’s mutiny ended in disaster, with the earth swallowing him and his closest associates (and fire consuming his outer circle). But what caused a man – who the Talmud calls clever – to rebel against the likes of Moshe? After all, wasn’t Korach present during the Exodus from Egypt, Revelation at Sinai and the many other miraculous events that proved Moshe was a divinely chosen leader? How could a clever man be so foolish?

The Midrash states that Korach was spurred by the law of the Red Heifer.

The Torah teaches that if a person becomes ritually impure (i.e. through contact with a dead body), the ashes of a completely red heifer must be sprinkled on that person to achieve ritual purity. It is such a supra-rational law that it is termed the supra-rational law of the Torah (in next week’s Parsha of Chukat). But how does Korach learning of this law impel him to revolt?

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The hippies as a movement may have seen their day pass, but in a sense their mission lives on. It continues in the halls of governments and in the media. It continues in society at large as the world becomes smaller and smaller. The hippie drumbeat is still getting louder in many ways, promoting a world lacking hierarchy and egos. We are all one is a common refrain. Let’s abandon our distinct religions, races and cultures in favor of a universal approach. Aren’t we – above all – simply humans? All these divisions and pecking orders simply cause more strife than harmony.

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Essentially, this was Korach’s argument to Moshe and Arahon. “The entire community is holy," He claimed, "and G-d is within them. Why do you exalt yourselves above the community of G-d?"

Common sense might assume Korach was involved in an egotistical – and foolish – power struggle. The truth, however, is quite another story. Korach was indeed clever. In a way, he was millennia ahead of his times. He reasoned that we ought to do away with Moshe, the High Priest, the Kohen class, the Levite class, and the different tribes.  Aren’t we all simply Jews? Korach aspired for a society free of categories and borders. He longed for a time and state of spiritual anarchy.

To many of us Korach’s position resonates – at least to a degree.   There’s a part of us that romanticizes of a world with no distinctions. No countries or tribes. No faiths or denominations. No powerful and no powerless. In our imagination that would be utopian.

And there’s good reason to admire such oneness. At the end of the day we all stem from the same source. At one point, we were all one.  And we ought to celebrate that unity.

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Chassidic thought explains that Korach’s error was not the fact that we all stem from the same origin. It was the fantasy that we still exist in universal form. True, we were all one before we were created. But ultimately, G-d created each of us with individual bodies, characteristics and missions in life.  To deny those differences is to deny our qualities and gifts, to stifle our talents and potential.

Idolizing a universalist approach does not promote true unity. Rejecting our essential dissimilarities will eventually lead to conflict when our inherent differences inevitably emerge. True peace is achieved when we foster respect for individuality.

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The Red Heifer symbolized an idea in Judaism that no one could comprehend. At that level, we are all indeed equal. Korach mistakenly wished to extend that to all aspects of life.

Yes, we are all holy at our root. But don’t smother your neighbor’s unique potential. We each have a special role to play.  Every mitzvah we do reinforces our exclusive function.

Thanks, Korach, for that important reminder.

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