Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Korach 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Korach 2024

What the Bible Teaches About Protests and Rebellions

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Does it feel like the world is getting better or falling apart? Do you feel hopeful about the directions things are moving? Without a doubt, optimism feels better than pessimism, and being happy may be a better choice than being right. However, during election cycles, politicians will try to steer our emotions in whatever direction best serves their aspirations.

Even so, these are real questions whose answers can impact our daily mood. It is true that globally we are in a period of heightened turmoil. Recent analyses indicate that the world is undergoing a period of increased protests, both in terms of frequency and scale.[1] On their own, those numbers don’t actually inform us as to whether things are improving.

Are protests and rebellions effective? Do they reduce corruption in societies or increase transparency? In countries with strong histories of protest movements, do citizens enjoy greater equality? Conversely, do citizens in countries with lower rates of protest have fewer rights or less equality? Finally, does the form of government play any role in these outcomes? Maddeningly, the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.[2]

In the words of H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” The Torah provides powerful ways to think about today’s protests and upheavals without falling into the trap of offering a simple, neat, and wrong answer.

Of the numerous rebellions and protests recounted in the Torah, the incident of Korach’s Rebellion found in this week’s parashah, Korach, is joined with the episode of the scouts recorded in last week’s reading. Yet humanity’s history of disobedience begins at the beginning: Adam and Eve’s rebellion is followed by Cain’s act of fratricide. A few chapters later, the Tower of Babel narrative appears. In Exodus, the incident of the Golden Calf stands out as particularly egregious.

To these, we read how the daughters of Tzelophchad challenge the norms of land distribution; one can also recall how Jethro finds Moses’s system of governance ineffective. Meanwhile, in

First Samuel, the people complain that they have tired of Samuel’s leadership and desire a king, which results in the old system of government being completely overturned. Revolution.

Abraham challenges God, Moses opposes Pharaoh, while Absalom stages an attempted coup against his father, David. The Bible is a compendium of power struggles. How do all these protests turn out?

The daughters of Tzelophchad win their argument, with some caveats. Moses defeats Pharaoh at huge cost to the Egyptians and Israelites. Cain lives on, but with a mark on his forehead and a weight on his shoulders. The Israelites achieve their revolution, but the age of kings is marked by poor leadership and much corruption. Moses listens to Jethro and redesigns a judiciary system. The ten spies in Shelakh Lekha die by plague, while the entire nation is forced to wander in the wilderness for another forty years. Abraham sees mixed results: God relents to his demands not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous individuals can be found, but the metropolis is too far gone.

The classic rabbinic answer to determining whether a given protest or rebellion is justified is recorded in Pirkei Avot 5:17: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation” (translation by Dr. Joshua Kulp, Sefaria).

There are numerous problems with this answer. First, it only provides guidance for what has already occurred, whereas we seek answers for today’s problems. Second, it assumes that the current structures, the ones that endure, in other words, are for the sake of heaven. This, however, is not correct. The monarchy that followed the Age of Prophecy also fell, to be followed by the Rabbinic Era, which in many ways has also ended. Longevity on its own isn’t  proof of anything but longevity.

For that reason, this section of Pirkei Avot has been subject to a vast amount of commentary, from which two more helpful answers arose. One states that arguments concerned more about discovering the truth than gaining power are heavenly arguments. The other I learned from Rabbi William Cutter, who notes that when Korach rebels, he tells Moses that “rav lachem,” you have gone too far or taken too much power for yourself. Jethro, however, warns Moses using different language: “khaveid mimcha hadavar,” this task is too burdensome for you. Korach’s rebellion arises out of jealousy and a desire for power, while Jethro’s challenge springs from a place of concern.

History argues convincingly that many protests and rebellions are ineffective and harmful. They might reduce or increase corruption in societies. Although many protests ostensibly have greater equality as a goal, they are as likely to exacerbate inequality as reduce it. If uncertainty about the value of protests and rebellions is indeed the lesson taught both by history and the Torah, then perhaps a dedication to truth and mutual concern can be our best yardstick.

Solutions must be devoted to the best, non-partisan version of truth available to us. Additionally, answers that arise out of a sense of concern for all of a society’s members demonstrate that they spring from love and not a desire for power. These two criteria may be our best bet for uncovering which argument is for the sake of heaven. Moreover, they remind us that the ends don’t justify the means, because in the moment, we never can be certain how the story will end. Yet if we dedicate ourselves to the twin kindnesses of truth and mutual concern, the process itself will be just, even if those with whom we are arguing play by different rules.


[1] See the Center for Strategic and International Studies (https://www.csis.org/) or Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (https://carnegieendowment.org/?lang=en) to learn more about this.

[2] For example, three democracies with robust protest cultures are France, India, and the United States. France earned a 72 out of a 100 on the yearly Corruption Perceptions Index, the USA received a 69, while India eked out a 40 out of 100. China, most definitely not a democracy, beats out India by two points. Meanwhile, nations such as Denmark, Singapore, and New Zealand have very few protests yet better corruption scores. Denmark tops the list with a 90, New Zealand was awarded an 85, while Singapore was granted an 83. Ruling out smaller countries, which these three are, the results don’t change drastically. Germany ranked a 78, while Canada landed at 76, and Australia at 75 of 100. Of those, Germany has a greater history of protests, while Australia has the least. (All data sourced from Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2023 at transparency.org). Similar data can be found for protests that have resulted in meaningful change as well as those that had little impact or worsened outcomes.