Throughout the Bible, God is challenged. Abraham challenges God. Pharaoh challenges God. Jezebel challenges God. The Israelites constantly challenge God.
What is it that distinguishes these challenges and God’s responses to them? Parashat Korach gives us a little insight. We read of four different challenges this week, and four levels of response. Korah bands with Dathan and Abiram against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites gather against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron beseech God not to destroy the entire community. The chieftains of Israel accept the challenge God puts forth for the right to be in the Divine Presence.
Korah’s rebellion is the most severe. As Jacob Milgrom points out, Korah and his band are "demoralized by the majority report of the scouts and condemned by their God to die in the wilderness"(The JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990] p. 129). They are angry, and perhaps jealous of their cousin Moses, and they express their anger by inciting the community. Even our typically humble Moses denounces the revolt, telling Korah rav lachem, "You have gone too far,"echoing Korah’s his own words from a few verses earlier (Numbers 16:3, 7). The people of the Korahite rebellion are utterly destroyed, either sent to Sheol or burned to ash by fire from God.
When the Israelites rebel as a community, they do so out of fear. They have just seen 250 of their religious leaders die, and they are afraid that it is because of Moses and Aaron and this invisible God they are following around the wilderness. God sees this as punishable by death, but Moses and Aaron intervene, challenging God to reconsider punishing them with the same ferocity as Korah. God does reconsider, and the reaction to the Israelites is modified. When the chieftains accept God’s challenge, none are punished because God sets the terms. Their acceptance shows a willingness to adhere to the results of the challenge. Their staffs do not sprout, and only Aaron is given the right to be in the Ohel Mo-eid the "Tent of Meeting.”
God can take a challenge, but not every confrontation is equal. The difference is in the intent of the challenger. If we are acting out of anger, jealousy, or fear, we are demonstrating a lack of faith in God’s leadership and ability to protect us. If we put forth a challenge out of a desire to change the world for the better, perhaps God will regard our request. Our greatest hope of this comes when we challenge ourselves to become better versions of ourselves. May these challenges help us to nurture our communities to fuller Jewish lives.