Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
Rabbi David Stav
In some ways, Parshat Korach presents a snapshot of Jewish history over the generations: arguments and altercations, zesty politics and all the elements you would ever need for an irresistible plot. The main theme revolves around a group of people who attempt to undermine Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. Hundreds of young leaders congregate and call the existing leadership into question:
“The entire assembly is holy… so why do you exalt yourselves?” (Bamidbar / Numbers 16:3)
This scene appears to have been taken from the world of classic politics, where new forces confront establishment leaders and try to replace them under various pretenses. The modern response to such contentions usually takes the form of primaries, or some other form of internal elections. In the ancient world, the standard reaction was to decapitate the leaders of the insurgency (a practice reminiscent of what is happening today in Syria).
Yet Moshe’s reaction to Korach’s claim is rather surprising. At first, he suggests that all parties claiming the title of priesthood present an incense offering to God, whereby the offering that finds favor in God’s eyes would signal which of the parties is the chosen leader.
Later, as the rebellion progresses, the tone shifts: Moshe informs the people that he will suffice in no less than the death of all those who conspired against him – but not just any death. He demands that God make the Earth open its mouth and swallow all of the insurgents.
If this unusual and supernatural punishment does not occur, the insurgents would have undeniable proof that Moshe was not the chosen leader. However, Moshe’s request is answered. Indeed, the Earth opened its mouth and swallowed Korach and his congregation, as well as their houses and belongings.
This narrative raises a number of questions. Why was Moshe so concerned with how these people would die? After all, Moshe had constantly pleaded with God to forgive sinners. Why, then, does he do an about-face and ask God not to accept or heed any attention to offerings made by those rebelling against him?
In the annals of our people, like those of any other people, we find many leaders who rode the waves of a populism that had swayed the masses. By its very nature, populism appeals to the basest of emotions felt by every individual, to get them to support a leader who exploits every opportunity to galvanize his power and status.
In certain instances, leaders flew the banner of xenophobia, while stressing the togetherness of the nation or the ethnic group. In others, leaders used love of property to ignite an economic and social class war, promising an egalitarian redistribution of wealth throughout the world, while fostering the illusion that this was at all possible in the short term?
Wouldn’t any person suffering from economic woes dream of living life the way the rich do? Wouldn’t any citizen tend to see foreigners as people who are endangering his or her status, and should be done away with? After all, if everyone is holy, then everyone deserves to have the same assets. Korach and company wanted to ride the bandwagon of a public sentiment that negated the concept of hierarchy, and contended that everyone is the same in every way.
People are truly equal in the eyes of God, but this doesn’t mean that anyone can become a priest in the Temple. God doesn’t disdain anyone’s prayers, but this doesn’t mean that everyone and anyone can lead those prayers. Everyone has the right to life, dignity, and a livelihood, but that doesn’t imply that everyone can be doctors and pilots.
Those who studied and received the proper training for the job are eligible to take on the appropriate tasks. We need to treat those with health problems or other issues with dignity and fairness, but that doesn’t mean that we should recruit them all to the Navy SEALs.
Moshe was trying to teach the nation a lesson in true leadership. He wasn’t interested solely in the insurgents’ demise. If that were the case, we would say that he was just another leader seeking personal glory.
Moshe asked God for a “new creation”, and for the Earth to open its mouth and swallow all those claiming that everyone is holy. He wanted to demonstrate to the insurgents that we don’t live in a utopian world that denies differences of any kind, whether social, economic, health, or otherwise.
But in this complex world, the one in which we live, we need to acknowledge that different people were given different skills, and each individual needs to make the best of the talents he or she has.
We could claim, for example, that everyone should share the burden of the state’s security and economic needs. And this is true. However, anyone who believes that we can reach this reality by dismantling existing social structures overnight is mistaken, and is fooling him or herself. Mantras like “everyone’s the same” are essentially true, but they are difficult, if not impossible to implement immediately, in our complicated reality. We must progress, and do so patiently, without conceding anything, and while acting in moderation.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]