History is written by the victors. Yes, it is true that the Torah is not a history book, and never claims to be one. Nevertheless, I suspect the Torah (and indeed the entirety of Jewish sacred text) is subject to this same reality. The Talmud, at least, makes a far greater effort to not bury the voices of the minorities, the losers, those out of favor, etc. The problem, however, is that when you view the Talmud on a meta or global level, the whole Talmud itself, even with its preserved disagreements and differences of opinion. the Talmud itself is still a product of being written, edited, and redacted by the victors. Who knows which differing opinions didn’t make it in the final cut?
The Egyptians were not afraid to be blatant in re-writing their history in favor of the victors. After their brief flirtation with monolatry under Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten’s enforced switch to worship of the Aten, most traces of this heresy were erased by the subsequent Pharaohs under the guidance of the restored Amunite priests. Little was known of this bit of history until Akhnaten’s city of Akhetaten was discovered at what is now Amarna. DNA evidence connects connects a mummy found at Akhetaten to the mummy of King Tutankhamun, which matches the accepted Egyptian chronologies (the experts still disagree if the mummy that DNA establishes as the father of Tutankhamun is actually that of Akhenaten.)
Scholars have long known not to trust written records, whether they be carved in stone or written on clay tablets, papyri, or animal skin. Tomb and stele inscriptions are propaganda at best, blatant misrepresentations at worst. More mundane records – records of commerce, negotiations, relationships – these are perhaps more revealing about what actual life was like. Perhaps they are more trustworthy in their content. Perhaps not.
The Torah is not a history. It is an etiology, the formative story of a people, and their encounter with, understanding of, and relationship to and with the Divine. Or it is the word of G”d handed down to Moshe at Sinai. It matters little. The story of Korakh’s little rebellion (and even framing it so skews things) is there and we must wrestle with what it tells us and teaches us.
I’m not going to rehash the most typical explanations. You can read and research those for yourself. My most recent understanding of why the story of Korach is there, and what it teaches us is part of the process of reflecting upon what has happened in Charleston-the senseless murder of nine congregants while studying the Bible at their church, in what is, in all probability, a racially-motivated act. It’s not a new understanding for me, but it comes to the fore at this time.
There are all sorts of connections we can make between this tragedy and parashat Korakh. Did Korakh stew in passive-aggressive jealousy, watching Moshe and Aaron (and his sons) get all the glory, only to be driven to an open confrontation by his own frustrations? (Hat tip to Sarah Alevsky.) Did Korakh deal with his own feelings of inadequacy by blaming others (i.e. Moshe and Aharon.) (Hat tip to Tzvi Klugerman – who also pointed out the possible parallel of how the killer in Charleston sat with those whom he attacked for a while pretending to be one of them before “rebelling” against them.)
Now, let’s harken back to how I started this musing. History is written by the victors. That is the lesson I am gleaning from the story of Korakh’s rebellion today. We’ll never know the real, full story, only the one the Torah reports to us.
Relax. Don’t get your knickers in a knot. This is not an attempt to suggest we need to understand what drove Dylan Ruff to this heinous act. It’s not some sort of anti-news media screed.
I could, but won’t, devote the rest of this musing to redeeming Korakh – to imagining a history in which he isn’t the bad guy he is made out to be, and is more of a scapegoat and is punished as an example to other would be challengers. The makings of that musing, another one of my untold “from the diary of” stories already exist in my head and my notes, and someday, I’ll imagine that “alternate not-history-history” for us. But the tragic event in Charleston has sent me in another direction, one that continues to paint Korakh as the bad example he might not actually have been.
As the discoveries at Amarna prove, no matter how hard the victors try to erase history, the real history can sometimes be outed.
That confederate flag, flying full mast at the South Carolina state capitol (while the state and US flags fly at half-mast) is a clue that the attempt to rewrite history after the Civil War has not be completely successful.
There is a part of me that wants that whole ugly scar of slavery, and the confederate rebellion to be consumed by the earth, as were Korakh and his followers. But the truth is, it hasn’t gone away-just as Korakh’s rebellion hasn’t gone away. Wouldn’t the simplest solution been to have written Korakh’s rebellion out of the Torah entirely? The “victors” probably had the ability to do just that. They didn’t. Is the story of Korakh’s rebellion there as a cautionary tale against rebelling against G”d and G”d’s anointed leaders (and the hereditary priesthood,) or is it a cautionary tale to remind us that the seeds of discontent can never be entirely eradicated, and we must be ever vigilant to seek them out and confront them when necessary. That rebel flag is serving the same purpose as the inclusion of the story of the rebellion of Korakh – a reminder that we must be ever vigilant – that we can’t ever fully erase the evil over which we have been victorious. Korakh and his followers were physically erased, swallowed up into the earth (though Korakh’s actual fate is highly debated – which was the topic of last year’s musing for parashat Korakh entitled “Still a Loose End.”) Scholars like to point out that Korakh is not mentioned at all in the retelling of this story in D’varim 11:16, or in Psalm 106. Only Datan and Abiram are singled out. Curious, isn’t it. Maybe the authors of D’varim and Psalm 106 were trying to rewrite history without Korakh?
Their attempts to do so, if that was their aim, have failed. That we still read this story of Korakh’s rebellion every year is proof. Just as that confederate flag is proof that the war we tried to forget is still not forgotten. Roof alleged murder in cold blood of nine innocent people involved in prayer and study is proof that it is not forgotten. Just as the story of Korakh being in Torah, when it could just as easily have been expunged, tells us that the evil of Korakh abides (though it should be noted his descendants turned into good and righteous people, and there is the strange statement in Numbers 26:11 that the sons of Korakh did not die.)
I have been vocal online about wanting to see that rebel flag taken, even torn down. I’d go there myself and do it if I could. However, we must be careful not to point to the confederate flag and lay all the blame for the continued racism that exists upon only the Civil War, and inly on the states of the confederacy. Responsibility is a slippery thing to determine. Yes, we have come a long way in our society. We fought a horrible war to end slavery (though we could have eliminated it from the very start of the country, damn you, Mssrs Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson – and in fact England beat us to it in 1833! It’s also not entirely clear that the Civil War was fought over slavery or even states’ rights. There were other factors that drove the conflict.) We haven’t come anywhere near far enough. All that has happened lately is proof enough of that. We can point and we can blame, or we can take a long, hard look at ourselves and see how we are all part of the problem. Then, maybe then, we can find a solution.
I am always reminded of that most damning of songs from the musical “1776” entitled “Molasses, to Rum, to Slaves” in which Edward Rutlege, delegate from South Carolina to the Continental Congress sings:
"Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade/Hail slavery, the New England dream!/Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:/Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!/Who stinketh the most?”
Yes, it was the obstinacy of the southern states that forced Jefferson to remove the offending words from the Declaration of Independence, but Rutlege’s observation, as fictionalized as it might be, was an accurate and true one. The north benefited as much from the slave trade as did the south. The northern states may have sought to abolish slavery, but I don’t think it was their plan to immediately embrace a classless inter-racial society. Racism remains institutionalized in this country, even with Obama in the White House. This racism leads to horrors like Charleston, and the disproportionate killing and mistreatment of blacks in confrontations with the police. We can protest about that rebel flag, but, like the story of Korakh, it serves to remind us to be ever vigilant in the cause of peace and justice. Just erasing the symbols of those we have conquered will not prevent their rising anew.
Imagine historians and archaeologists from a thousand years in the future trying to make sense of a country that apparently had a mixed race leader, but still had large traces of institutionalized racism. We can ban the heinous symbol, the stars and bars, but when archaeologists dig one up in a thousand years, they’ll soon discover the truth we tried to bury and whitewash. Don’t try and hide it, bury it, pretend it never happened. Confront it, and deal with it every time it happens – and it will continue to happen, at least until we reach the Messianic age. That is the lesson I am deriving from Korakh this year.
©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Korach 5774 - Still a Loose End
Korakh 5773 - B'tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5761-Loose Ends