“As he finished speaking all these words, 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.” This is the end of the infamous story of Korah and those who joined him, “two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown.”
Korah and his gang approach Moses with something that seems to be a legitimate claim, simple and sensible. Moses and Aaron are the leaders of the people and they are sick and tired of that. They demand, “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?” Surprised Moses does not even comprehend what has hit him and responds, “you sons of Levi, is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also?” Maybe in order to calm things down he calls upon Dathan and Abiram who arrogantly refuse, “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!”
Now Moses is furious and responds, “I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I done harm to any of them.” These words are reflected again much later in history when Samuel parts from the leadership position that is passed to King Saul. He checks with the people, “Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? I will restore it to you.” The people admit, “You have not defrauded us or oppressed us or taken anything from any man’s hand.” Moses is not that lucky and nobody is there to testify for him and therefore it is no wonder that from here on things quickly escalate. The result could have been much worse, given the Godly proposal to Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” However, these two great leaders come to the rescue yet again, begging, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?” Surely there was in that group more than a single sinner but the concept was clear.
It seems that Moses and Korah do not really speak the same language. Korah on one hand speaks of the benefits of leadership מנהיגות , Moses, just like Samuel in the Haftarah, talks about behavior, התנהגות, both from the same root in the Hebrew language, with a very different meaning. A leader that does not comprehend that he or she may not take from the people that which belongs to them cannot lead them because of a behavioral issue. Moses understand that Korah’s perception of leadership is focused on the benefits that can be had and it is therefore that Moses responds to what is not immediately apparent. He explains that the leader is not supposed to enjoy a material benefit from the leadership position in an attempt to curve Korah’s and the others’ expectations of what leadership is all about.
There is one more behavioral trait in Korah and his groups’ behavior and that is the “they” versus “us” concept. He attempts to stick a wedge between the people by defining them as “we” and “them” only in order to forward his own ambitions. Unfortunately, we see the results of these behavior in every day life. A separation of “we” and “them” where the “we” is always better than the “them”. We read this week about a woman who complained to a service provider about a technician whose professionalism was not contented but rather the color of his skin. We saw on television a so-called rabbi who was supposed to become an MK representing Shas that mocked another people claiming that they were inherently ugly, and women not modestly dressed to his liking that would come back to earth as an animal in another incarnation. It is also important to speak this month about the many decade long LGBTQ+ community struggle for full equality here in the State of Israel. While I have no doubt that Israel is much better than many other places in the world, there is still much to be desired on our road to be a light to the nations, as we ought to be. It is important so that we too, just like the prophet Samuel at his time, claim, “he Lord is witness against you, and His anointed is witness this day that you have found nothing in my hand.” That’s true leadership.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov of all colors of the Rainbow and wishes for good health to all.
Reuven Marko, 19 June 2020, 28 Sivan, 5780