Do you ever have a really bad day, when it seems like everyone and everything is working against you? Moses sure did. In fact it must have seemed to him like he had fourteen thousand and six hundred days like that and most of them are recorded in the book of Bamidbar. This week’s parsha Korach, records a mutiny of sorts which becomes the arch-type for rebellion in Judaism, and could also have been the standard for a really bad day but for the intervention of Hashem.
For those of us who are Americans, we do not feel that uneasy about the concept of challenging of authority. In fact this is a country which was birthed out of an act of rebellion. America is a culture where you can sprawl graffiti upon the wall that reads “Challenge Authority” and another person will cross it out, subsequently challenging your authority! So when we hear of elected officials evoking executive privilege we collectively get nervous. In general there has been a public distrust of governance in the last several years. In the parlance of the sixties, “Don’t trust the Man”
And aren’t the we Jews the original authority challengers? Abraham smashed his father’s idols, Nathan pointed his finger at a guilty King David, and Elijah made himself an overall nuisance to Ahab and Jezebel. So then why does Torah take such a hard line against Korach and his cohorts?
According to Talmud, “Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end yield results, and any which is not for the sake of Heaven will in the end not yield results. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? This is the sort of dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And what is one which is not for the sake of Heaven? It is the dispute of Korach and all his party.” (Avot 5:17)
Of Mice and Men
In other words Korach did not have a legitimate gripe because all of his complaints and consternation were rooted in ambition, greed and a need for self-aggrandizement. Korach is a descendant of Levi, a cousin to Moses and Aaron. He is upset because the sons or Aaron have been given the priestly duties and honors, not he and his sons. But observe the clever and convoluted argument he puts forth. Korach challenges Moses, “all the of community are holy” rather than “is holy” emphasizing the individuality rather than the collective nature of Israel’s holiness. Korach is self-motivated, unlike Moses who endlessly sacrifices himself for the good of the community. Korach is cunning and manipulative, and the tone of the rebellion he incites is one of entitlement. On the surface he sounds like a patriot, sounding the bell of democratic rule. The truth is that in spite of the many miracles that Hashem performed by the hand of Moses in the Sinai wilderness, Korach is seething with jealousy!
Korach’s cohorts aren’t much better! Dathan and Abriam just want to be fed. It was somebody else’s responsibility to provide for all of their needs in precisely the fashion that they desired. They constantly complain about the poor provisions in the wilderness and romanticize the good old days in Egypt! Isn’t it amazing how selective their memories were? Perhaps Egypt was a land “flowing with milk and honey” as they ironically postulate, but certainly none of it was flowing their way. According to midrashic tradition the children of Rueben never forgot they were the eldest tribe and felt they were entitled. Because Levi and Reuben marched together (Numbers 2: 16-17; 10:18, 21) they were corrupted, feeling jealous of the Levim and their positions of privledge, they were able to commiserate with the disenfranchised sons of Levi! According to this tradition Dathan and Abriam were the perfect patsies for Korach’s misguided efforts. Bad companions can truly lead us down very dark paths!
But what a difference havurot tsadikim (righteous friends) can make. On, the son of Peleth another Rubenite is mentioned from the outset of the rebellion (16:1), only to disappear from the narrative afterwards. Again the Midrash fills in the blanks on the terse storyline. The aggadot (lore) tells how On is saved by his wife. She said “What benefit is it (the rebellion), either Moses remains master and you are his follower or Korach becomes master and you are his follower.
I suppose Mrs. On knew that it would be relatively easy for Korach to gather his lieutenants, 250 in total from among the most influential of the people (v.2). By the time the showdown between Moses and the rebels occurred a significant mob was following Korach’s leadership. Mobs are nothing new and are always too ready to listen to inflammatory rhetoric. Korach had his followers. Hitler had his followers, and even today angry demagogues incite anger fanning the flames of jealousy and fear.
Leadership of Compassion
Korach’s grave mistake was to confuse equality with sameness. Moses actions prove that he and Korach are completely different kinds of leaders. Korach challenges authority- but how does Moses react? Faced with the most threatening internal strife of his entire leadership Moses might well have responded with tremendous force and passion. Instead he falls on his face in prayer. This is not a last resort for Moses but rather his normal mode of operation. In so doing he honors Hashem. Moses is not concerned with his own honor, but rather the honor of The Holy One of Israel!
The God that Moses celebrates is El Rachum v’Chanun, the God of compassion and mercy. So as a result Moses reacts to the insurrection by repeatedly expressing concern for the rebels! Rather than punishing them immediately, he makes his best effort to try to avoid the inevitable. Over and over again broken hearted Moses pleas for the difficult people he leads. This is why Moses asks God to acquiesce and punish only the 250 leaders of the revolt rather than the fickle masses deserving of punishment. Moses only desires to put the incident behind and restore communal harmony. He is a clearly different kind of leader than Korach. Clearly the issue is not whether government is inherently evil (that was Korach’s gig) rather whether the government is divinely established, sensitive to God’s authority and compassionate to the core.
So does this have anything to say to us today? Ask yourself, do I have a victim mentality? Do you consider your life a product of swirling, whirling forces beyond your control? Are you filled with jealousy for others?
Are you impatient like Korach, wanting everything now? Moses was taking our ancestors to the Promised Land – but they could not muster the patience to wait. Korach and his cohorts despised authority – do you? Do you secretly resent anyone who suggests another way to look at life, or those who are just different? Such people would never say they despise authority, but they never seem to find anyone who they can follow.
Life is a gift, not an entitlement. And leadership is a gift as well. So ask yourself, do you really want a revolution?