By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
In last week’s Torah parsha, Shelach, twelve ‘spies’, after scouting the land of Canaan for forty days, returned with a blatantly exaggerated falsehood pertaining to the strength and size of the inhabitants. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the other ten men rejected the assumption that the people living in Canaan could be defeated in battle by the Israelites. God’s reaction was to decree that (excepting Joshua and Caleb), only a new generation of people, who had not been raised in slavery, would be capable of creating a ‘civilized’ society in the ‘Promised Land’. An unequivocal sentence was handed down to the Israelites: Everyone over the age of twenty would be forced to live and die in the desert.
The time was ripe for a revolution. The People were demoralized, and the ‘Promised Land’ was no longer in their sight. The strategy was simple and Machiavellian: foment unrest and stage a take-over. The tactics employed were simple. Collect the disheartened and create the façade of a united opposition. The message had to be one of ‘populism’; sympathy for the people’s discontent and allies assembled to join the revolt.
The leader of this movement was Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses. He was joined by Dathan and Avram, both descendants of Reuben (Jacob’s first son). Added to this coalition were two hundred and fifty men who had very different motives than the others. These men did not want to remove their current leaders. According to Rashi, they desired only to attain a greater closeness to God. They were willing to die for this achievement: “They sinned with their souls”(1).
The rebels assembled against Moses and Aaron and said to them: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the congregation is all holy and the Lord is in their midst….so why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s people?”(2).
Moses (unsuccessfully) attempted to make peace with Korach and later with Dathan and Avram(3). Korach failed to understand the roles played by ‘leaders’ in Judaism. They are not dictators, rulers or demagogues. They do not seek self-aggrandizement, extraordinary wealth by taxing their own people or surrounding themselves with sycophants to satisfy their every whim. Jewish leadership is not a matter of status, but of function.
The Lord punished Korach, Dathan and Avram severely by “splitting the earth beneath them, and swallowing their houses and property”(4). For entering too close to God’s Holiness, the two-hundred and fifty men were consumed by fire(5). The Mishna in Pirkei Avot describes their transgressions as “sins with a pure motive”(6).
The three men who died for their arrogance confused ‘power’ with ‘influence’. Moses used his influence to teach the Israelites the commandments, laws and directives, as dictated to him by God. The role of Aaron and his descendants was to ensure the implementation of these Holy Decrees. They neither acted, nor perceived themselves as men of ‘power’. It is for this reason that the rabbis have always focused their attention on the non-hierarchical crown of Torah: “Here competition leads not to conflict, but to an increase in wisdom”(7).
(1) Rashi (on Parsha KORACH)
(2) NUMBERS (16:3)
(3) NUMBERS (16:8-12)
(4) NUMBERS (16:31-32)
(5) NUMBERS (16:35)
(6) Pikei Avot (5:17)
(7) Baba Batra (21a)