Complaints, complaints and even more complaints. Moses and Aaron must contend with all of these and still continue to lead the People towards the Promised Land. It begins with a statement by Korah and his people who proclaim, “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” It continues when Moses call for “Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab” and they respond dismissingly, “We will not come up. Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” It does not take long for a harsh response and those who complained are punished severely, “the ground that was under them split open; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with their possessions. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel who were around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth may swallow us up!” Fire also came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.”
The Punishment of Korah - Botticelli
The saga of grievances does not end here though, the lesson has not been learned. Merely a day passes by and “on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You are the ones who have caused the death of the Lord’s people.’” Moses and Aaron immediately understand the damage that has been done but it is too late to prevent the consequence, the “wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun.” It is of course of no surprise whatsoever that the Israelites approach Moses saying, “Behold, we perish, we are dying, we are all dying! Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, must die. Are we to perish completely?” The plague ceases as Moses, in a moment of brilliant thinking call to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them.” Aaron is quick to respond, places himself among the people and “took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked.”
It is a good opportunity to take this example of leadership and analyze it a little more. Moses had several options before him. He could have let the plague take its course, actually obeying the divine order he and Aaron received, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” The leader would have saved himself and his family and possibly would have to deal no more with all the difficulties and aggravation from the People he led. Another possibility was to ponder the case, maybe procrastinate about it for a while, rather than act swiftly. Moses chose the third option. He does not as ordered but as a leader should act, he heeds to the call of leadership and gives the only just order that saves many lives. In contrast with the pessimism of the People and their question, “Are we to perish completely?” Moses answer is simple but decisive. He carries on, he knows this is a monstrous and complicated task, but he does not give up on it.
In positions of leadership we find ourselves many times over again with the need to confront people who have grievances with certain issues. This is an integral part of the leader’s role and leaders must be able to contend with them appropriately. Moses understands that the solution is not in the purge of those who complain. God, in this case, governments in other cases, may have these powers of annihilation. Reality shows that even they are not really successful in this. It is impossible to get rid of those who think or act differently, and admittedly, at least sometimes the complaints have merit. Sometimes the complaints are made because the full picture is not known, in other cases the leaders are simply blind to reality. The challenge is to change the world, transfer complainers to supporters not by might, fright or spite, but rather through the ever daunting task of convincing, listening, changing and building.
Certainly at the Reform Movement we have to deal with a fair amount of grievances. Some come from within, some from those who come and visit with us, and more or less viscous and arrogant criticism from the outside. We do not wish upon them an earth that opens its mouth, or plagues the extinguish lives out of human beings. We have a leadership role in this world. Fixing of what is wrong in the world, Tikkun Olam, is the task of each and every one of us, regardless of being in a leadership position or otherwise. We must drive to change the discourse; to shed light to the fullest rainbow of colors with a special focus on those areas which some are trying to keep in the dark; and we must believe that we can face the difficulties, overcome evil, and find a path even towards those who make it difficult to do so.
Reuven Marko, 15 June 2018, 3 Tamuz, 5778