Dvar Torah written by Mike Garmise (Tammuz 5775, June 2015)
Today’s parsha and its haftara offer us a fascinating glimpse at two very devoted leaders dealing with problems of leadership. At first glance, the two stories – Korach’s revolt against Moshe, and Samuel’s being “forced” to appoint a king (Saul) over the people – have certain parallels. But a deeper look suggests that they are very different.
Let’s start with the problem.
Korach was a Levite and he thought someone else (i.e., he, Korach) should be the leader of the Israelites. Why? Because the whole nation of Israel is holy. Why is Moshe holier than the others? Why does Moshe lord it over them all?
Samuel was (according to legend) a descendent of the family of Korach. He was consecrated to serve God from an early age which he did with unflagging devotion and zeal. The people, however, wanted to be like the other nations and have a king. Samuel told them: You are ALL HOLY, you don’t need a king!
What do they say?
Moshe is personally insulted and angered by Korach’s words. He, Moshe, never wanted to be the leader. God forced him into it. So how dare Korach accuse him of lusting for power? Moshe says: “You are a Levite, you have special privileges and serve God. Is that not enough? You want the priesthood?” When Datan and Aviram, the other rebels, are asked to meet with Moshe, they mock him. “Not only did you take us out of the land of milk and honey [meaning Egypt!] but you are also lording it over us!”
Moshe’s angry retort is given not to the people but to God. “I have not taken a single donkey from any of the people, nor have I harmed any one of them! Don’t listen to them!”
Samuel’s retort sounds similar to Moshe’s, but it isn’t. He speaks to the people: “Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken? From whom have I taken ransom – if it has eluded me, tell me and I will make restitution!” To which the people say, “No! You never took anything!”
At this point Samuel does a sixty-second review of Israelite history from Avraham to his day, and then says, “Follow God and all will be well.” And then, just to make his point, he calls down rain and thunder and lightning in the dry season! This panics the people who realize where the power really is. But Samuel is just playing with them – you wanted a king, you got a king, now be good – or else.
The results: Korach is swallowed up alive. Datan and Aviram are burnt by divine fire (like Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons).
In Samuel, the people get a king, who is too weak for his own good and the people’s good. Samuel remains in the background and while he loves Saul and wants him to succeed (after finally accepting his “retirement” from the prophesying business), he is terribly upset by Saul’s lack of character. But that’s another story, for some other time.
Let’s sum up. Korach’s point that all the people were holy and therefore needed no leader was pure demagoguery. After all, wasn’t he complaining that Moshe had the power (indicating that he, Korach, should have it too)? Even if all the people were holy they needed someone to organize them and point the way.
And that may have been Korach’s plan. Create absolute chaos and anarchy and when things go from bad to worse, come before the people and say, “Let me show you the way, my fellow holy people! I will lead you.” In other words, the people would be ready for a dictator.
The Torah makes clear that Korach was not altruistic, that he did not have the people’s good at heart, and Moshe felt it too. But why is Korach accusing him of being power-hungry now?
Perhaps because Aaron and Miriam did so too, two parshot earlier. Perhaps it was open season on Moshe: the people were agitated because they had been sentenced to death in the desert over a 40 year period and the food was bad and they had nothing to look forward to and Korach was simply preying on the mood of the times.
Samuel is shown only in the light of the devoted servant of God. Even though he does not agree, God has told him to anoint a king, so that is what he will do. His pyrotechnics are perhaps a last fling, to assuage his feelings of frustration that he cannot continue to do what he has been doing all his life, and to temper the sting of the personal affront that the people have rejected him.
Two stories, two heroes facing challenges, one bad guy, one misplaced guy (Saul should not have been king). A good read for a Shabbat morning!