“Parsha to the Point” – Korach 5777

Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)

Rabbi David Stav 

Let us revisit the story of the most famous argument in the history of the Jewish people. Over the generations, disputes of a similar – and even harsher – level have been a constant in Jewish history, and show no signs of subsiding. What is the source for this dispute? What prompted Korach and his entourage to rebel against Moshe’s leadership?

A p’shat (literal) reading of the text uncovers several decisions Moshe made that angered certain groups. The first was the decision to appoint Aharon and his sons as priests, who would serve in the Mishkan, and later, in the Holy Temple. In today’s terms, any such decision would be shot down by the ombudsman or the Supreme Court, since it is the very definition of cronyism, when influential positions are awarded to close associates, without issuing a tender for the said positions, in a non-transparent process.

Moreover, all of the first-born, accustomed to serving as the liaisons between their families and the worship of Hashem, are deprived of their status, and their positions are handed over to the tribe of Levi, Moshe’s tribe. Again – a case of cronyism.

And to top it all off, the traditional tribal leadership was neutralized. Basically, this was a tried-and-tested recipe for widespread unrest.

The text mentions the steps Moshe takes to quash the rebellion. At first, Moshe suggests that the two hundred and fifty leaders of the rebels take shovels, fill the shovels with incense, and try to offer up the incense before Hashem, so that everyone could see whether Hashem would accept the offering. Naturally, they are happy to do so, but their fate was unexpected and brutal: a fire emerges and consumes them all.

The Torah also tells us that Moshe asks Hashem to cause the Earth to “open its mouth” and “swallow” Korach and his followers, which is precisely what happens. Everyone agrees that this is hardly an ordinary event.

But the story does not end there. A devastating plague takes hold of the nation, and subsides only after Aharon wages a tough battle. This is when Hashem commands Moshe:

…and take from them a staff for each father’s house from all the chieftains according to their fathers’ houses; twelve staffs, and inscribe each man’s name on his staff. Inscribe Aharon’s name on the staff of Levi, for there is one staff for the head of their fathers’ house.

This suggestion is quite clear-cut. Any candidate who deems himself worthy of being a priest is to take a staff and write his name on it. Then “the staff of the man whom I will choose will blossom.” The staff that blossoms will represent the one Hashem had chosen to serve as a priest.

The biggest question we must ponder is why all these staffs are necessary. Isn’t Hashem’s choice obvious enough, after Korach and his followers were swallowed by the ground and a fire consumed the two-hundred and fifty false priests? What purpose do these blossoming staffs serve? It is as if all that had transpired until this point wasn’t enough, and Hashem has told Moshe to take twelve staffs, place twelve men next to them, and see what happens next.

Our commentators suggest several directions we could take to address this issue. Some claim that until this point, no substantive demonstration of Aharon’s chosenness has been made. This is because the fact that Korach and his followers were killed merely demonstrates that they were not worthy of priesthood, but it does not clearly demonstrate that Aharon was appropriate for the position, or that Hashem had chosen him. A clear demonstration of Aharon’s suitability was still required.

However, it is difficult to accept such an argument. After all, these events weren’t an everyday occurrence. Couldn’t they be considered definitive demonstrations of Hashem’s will that Moshe’s orders be carried out? Other commentators propose that Moshe and Aharon had set up the rest of the leaders for failure by subjecting them to unfair tests, knowing that Hashem does not approve of those who offer incense without being commanded to do so (lest we forget, Nadav and Avihu had already been killed when producing a “strange fire” they hadn’t been commanded to produce).

I would like to suggest another explanation. Leadership can assert itself either by mudslinging its rivals, or by taking positive actions. Marketers call these approaches negative and positive campaigns. Naturally, a negative campaign will focus on the “other”, trying to denigrate the other side, without committing the accuser to doing things any better. In contrast, a positive campaign focuses on the leader himself or herself, and attempts to highlight the advantages, talents and virtues the proposed leader brings to the table.

We can discuss the importance of the appointment of Aharon and his sons in two ways. One is by either casting doubt over the abilities of their peers, debasing or killing anyone who isn’t Aharon, and so on. This approach clearly has certain advantages for a certain period of time, but over the long run, people will ask themselves which leader has a vision or gives them a reason to believe that tomorrow will be better.

This is a better option on a moral level: which leader’s staff will blossom, not just which leader will obliterate his opponents with Divine fire. People are direly in need of hope and need to believe that they will be showered with blessings in the future. That’s why Hashem does not suffice with the process of eliminating enemies. He demonstrates that Aharon is the one to bring a hope for blessings and blossoming to the Jewish people.

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