Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)
Rabbi David Stav
This Shabbat, we will have a dispute in the synagogue. Korach and his followers rebel against Moses, and the story of the most infamous dispute in the history of the Jewish People plays itself out. Never before have we experienced such a terrible dispute with such dire repercussions, which refuses to stop tormenting us. How did this dispute spring up in the first place? A simple reading of the verses covers a number of decisions made by Moses that incensed various groups.
The first was the appointment of Aaron and his sons to serve as priests in the Tabernacle. If this decision were to be made by anyone today, most would quickly call it nepotism – blood relatives being appointed to influential posts without issuing any tenders or processes of transparency.
To make matters worse, all of the firstborn – who had served as the primary conduit between their families and the worship of God – were removed from their positions, with those responsibilities given instead to the tribe of Levi – Moses’s tribe.
So, what we have here is not only nepotism, but an undermining of the traditional leadership roles taken by the other tribes – a sure recipe for stirring up unrest.
In order to squelch the uprising, Moses proposes that the rebels take shovels, fill them with incense, try to make incense offerings to God, and wait for God to respond. The end was tragic and unexpected: a fire emerged, consuming all of those who offered the incense.
Then, Moses asked God to have the Earth “open its mouth” and swallow Korach and his followers alive, which it did. This is not exactly what we would expect of Moses.
And it doesn’t end there. A terrible epidemic devastates the Israelite camp, ending only by means of Aaron’s tireless intervention.
At that moment, God instructs Moses to have every person who views himself as a candidate for priesthood to take a staff and write his name on it. The staff upon which blossoms would appear would be the one belonging to the person that God had chosen.
The larger question that readers should be grappling with is for what purpose do all these staves serve? Have we not learned enough from what happened to Korach and his followers, who were swallowed alive by the Earth, or from the shovels of the contenders to the post of priesthood, which caught fire? Who needs a blossoming staff at this point?
Leadership can be attained via mudslinging and negative campaigning against political opponents. But it can also be forged through its own virtuous actions, when it chooses positive campaigning over negative campaigning. It is natural for someone running a negative campaign to focus on the other candidate, with attempt to defame her or shove his face into the dirt, without the ability to guarantee that he could do a better job.
In contrast, positive campaigns focus on the leader himself, and aim to highlight the prospective leader’s advantages, qualities, and talents.
There are two ways to describe how Aaron and his sons could have been selected for the priesthood. The first way could have involved casting doubt on other people’s character traits, slandering or even executing any of Aaron’s rivals. This is a severely short-sighted approach, because but in the long run, people will ask themselves which potential leader can ensure us a better future and come up with a vision that gives us a reason to believe that tomorrow will be better, in the moral sense.
When assessing leaders, people ask themselves, “Which leader will make my staff blossom, instead of merely breathing fire onto a pile of shovels?” People need and crave hope for all that is positive and good in life, to be showered in blessings. This is why God does not suffice with simply proving a point by process of elimination. Instead, he shows Aaron to be someone who will usher in a new hope for a better future and a blessed life.