"The entire congregation are all holy"
"The Israelite Spring." No doubt were Korach, the central protagonist of this week's Torah reading, to pronounce his lofty words today, he would be dubbed immediately a hero and guardian of democracy by the media pundits and the chattering classes. After all, who can argue with, "the entire congregation are all holy, and HaShem is in their midst?" (Numbers 16:3) It doesn't get more democratic or more lofty than that. Are we not all the sons and daughters of Adam, created equally in G-d's image? Armed with this incontestable principle, Korach delivers the following broadside: "'So why do you raise yourselves [Moshe and Aharon] above HaShem's assembly?'" (ibid)
Simply put, Korach, the rebellious and resentful Levite, cousin of Moshe, has stated the following: We are all equal before G-d. Ergo, you, Moshe and Aharon, by assuming the roles of leadership, have usurped the power of the people! Very heady words indeed, designed and delivered with the intent to incite and incense the people. So there we have it: an instant uprising. But beyond the lofty words, and the soaring rhetoric, what is really going on?
Moshe quickly identifies the precise motivation which lies behind the pronouncements of Korach: "Is it not enough that the G-d of Israel has distinguished you from the congregation of Israel to draw you near to Him, to perform the service in the Tabernacle of HaShem and to stand before the congregation to minister to them?" (ibid 16:9) Korach wanted for himself the top job: he wanted to be the High Priest in Aharon's stead. True, he was preaching a "golden rule" of equality and sanctity to the crowd which gathered round him, but his own eye was on the "brass ring," the sweet plum of the priesthood that he wanted all to himself.
To this aim he whispered in the ear of the tribe of Reuven, children of the first born of Israel, and revived within them the promise of the priesthood for the firstborn. Also among Korach's cadre of followers were, "chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute." (ibid 16:2) Korach himself was a man of great wealth, a man of high station, a brilliant man. No doubt, following the crisis of the twelve spies and G-d's judgment against the generation, there was an ample reservoir of despair and discouragement for Korach to draw upon. Moshe's leadership was indeed brought into question. Korach, to certain "men of repute" seemed a strong horse, a rising force to be followed, in contrast to the waning influence of Moshe.
And no doubt there were among Korach's followers men of integrity, honest folk carried by Korach's lofty rhetoric, "useful idiots" easily manipulated by the crafty Korach. Moshe recognized this immediately, and by forcefully responding he succeeded in diffusing Korach's rebellion. Moshe understood that Korach's real grievance wasn't with him or with Aharon. Korach's sour grapes were directed at no less than G-d Himself. He was spouting Torah principles of equality and holiness while in the very same breath rejecting G-d's choice of Moshe and Aharon to lead the nation. He was hitching a free ride on Torah with the intend of undermining the Torah and the instruments of governance and justice outlined by Torah. Ultimately, Korach sought to replace Torah and the rule of G-d's law with - hardly a surprise here - Korach!
Moshe used Korach's own rhetoric against him. By refusing to fall for the alleged grievances directed against himself and Aharon, Moshe kept the ball, as it were, on G-d's court: "He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, 'In the morning, HaShem will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will draw [them] near to Him, and the one He chooses, He will draw near to Him. Do this, Korach and his company: Take for yourselves censers. Place fire into them and put incense upon them before HaShem tomorrow, and the man whom HaShem chooses he is the holy one; you have taken too much upon yourselves, sons of Levi.'" (ibid 16:5-7) Korach, who sough all along to rid the people of Torah and to sever their connection with G-d, now found himself in the middle of a public competition for G-d's favor. He could hardly reject this challenge thrown his way without losing face before his followers, He had to accept. But it was a contest he was bound to lose. In this manner Moshe was able to peel away the critical support Korach needed to sustain his uprising. The threat already receding, G-d dispatched of Korach most emphatically, making short shrift of his short lived rebellion.
So much for the "The Israelite Spring." Demagogues and power seeking pretenders have been employing the high minded principles of democracy and equality and individual sanctity in order to subvert these very same ideals, for thousands of years. Midrash sheds a different behind-the-scenes light on the making of the Korach rebellion. At first glance it may seem trivial or even trite, but on second glance, it might just say all that needs to be said. According to Midrash, Korach was driven by his ambitious wife. She taunted him for shaving his body hair, in accordance with the commandment concerning the inaugural dedication of the Levites, saying to him that his cousin Moshe was deliberately trying to make all his fellow Levites look foolish. She gave him no choice: rebel against Moshe, or lose my respect. Certainly this shrewd and shrewish woman could have been the prototype for Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. But Midrash here is challenging Korach in his opening gambit. He stated that "the entire congregation are all holy," hearkening to the creation of Adam, the first man, in G-d's image. But Midrash points out that Adam wasn't one, but two: man and woman, husband and wife. It is the sanctity of the marital relationship, and not the individual, which forms the basis for the governance of man and the sanctification of society. Proper leadership begins with humility and fellowship, not with unbridled individualism. This is a lesson that any society ignores at its own peril.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Yitzchak Reuven and special guest host Tzvi Richman square off over the infamous Korach: Was he a democrat or a demagogue? The Rebellion of Korach was directed at Moshe and Aharon, but was it not truly aimed at toppling G-d and Torah? Were his intentions true? Was he an anarchist at heart? Did his rebellion differ from the children of Israel's plea to Shmuel centuries later to appoint over them a king? In the meantime, Rabbi Richman is off to America where he will be conducting his three week Torah of Transformation Speaking Engagement Tour.