Parshat Korach 2018
Was Korach a populist? Definitely. Was he a demagogue? Absolutely. Was he a purveyor of what we call fake news? Most surely. Was he right in what he said? To some extent yes. Did Moshe handle Korach’s threat correctly? Yes and no. Did Korach deserve to die? That’s a tough question. Before we tackle it, let’s try to understand why Korach’s revolt erupted now and what his underlying motives were.
Last week we read about the 12 spies who returned from Canaan full of praise for the land and fear of entering it. The consequence was that the Israelites, who had been zapped out of Egypt and dropped in the desert – were going to die there. They had no hope of ever leaving the desert and reaching the Promised Land.
The reaction to hopelessness is to search for a way out, or a scapegoat. There was no way out. And the natural scapegoat was Moshe. Why? In part because the many of the people hadn’t wanted to leave Egypt in the first place. Sure, they wanted to be free but not in the desert!
In addition, recent changes had upset the traditional hierarchy. From our own experience with the Ethiopians brought here, we know that one of the biggest mistakes was nullifying the existing hierarchy. The Ethiopian elders could no longer be the decision makers – because they couldn’t understand what they had to decide about.
In Egypt and until recently in the desert, the firstborn of the tribes had been the princes. But now, Aharon was appointed high priest and the Levites were appointed to serve in the tabernacle. What was left for the princes?
The people as a whole were depressed because they knew they were lost. Fertile ground for a demagogue. The princes, who were both lost and dispossessed, sought retribution. All that was needed was a person to ignite the anger and frustration.
Enter Korach, the opportunist and master manipulator. He drives home a point that many of the Israelites noticed but dared not verbalize: Moshe was packing the bureaucracy with his own family. Pure nepotism!
What, says Korach, aren’t WE as holy? Weren’t we at Mount Sinai the same as you? Aren’t I a Levite just like Aharon? Why should YOUR BROTHER be better than me? And his co-conspirators, the dispossessed firstborn princes, add: And why have the Levites (your tribe) taken over the main administrative positions?
Superficially they have a point, up to a point. In his defense we have to say that Moshe was appointed by God. Aharon was also chosen by God, serving faithfully as Moshe’s mouthpiece and as a calming influence on the people. And if Korach was such a big shot, why didn’t he take action to get the people out of Egypt before Moshe came on the scene?
Like the spies last week, Korach also goes too far. Is he as holy as Moshe? Are all people equally holy? Is holiness a quality that a person has or is it, as Yeshayahu Leibowitz said, a process of aspiration to reach a higher level? Where is Moshe and where is Korach?
But it gets worse. Fake news. From Moshe’s responses we understand that Korach was accusing him of getting rich from his position. Moshe is apoplectic. He’s taken on a totally thankless task. He has done things never before accomplished, and he isn’t making anything from it! If anything he is losing – his family life is a shambles, he’s at God’s beck and call, he’s at the people’s beck and call. Why would anyone even WANT the job? It’s like being the Prime Minister of Israel!
Korach’s co-conspirators also take jibes at Moshe, accusing him of forcing the people to leave the land of milk and honey (Egypt) based on his own whims. Moshe loses it. For the first time he calls down God’s power to eradicate Korach and his followers in an unnatural way, by having the earth swallow them up. And it happens.
Was this the right approach? We can argue that he had to nip the revolt in the bud and remove this demagogue who was going to lead the people – nowhere.
After all, what alternative was Korach offering? He couldn’t take the people out of the desert – God had already sentenced them to die there. Some commentators say that Korach and his followers actually wanted the Israelites to stay in the desert. There they had God serving them food and water, they had no responsibilities to speak of, they had no duties to perform other than the mitzvoth. Why not?
But Moshe’s plan didn’t work. We see in modern times that when a dictator liquidates dissenters, the response is greater dissention, and although Moshe was no dictator, the result was the same. The people accused Moshe of killing off the whole nation. And an epidemic broke out. Only because of quick action by Moshe and Aharon was it stopped before it could wipe out the people (also reflecting the worthiness of his appointment).
So did Korach deserve to die? Probably. The desert wasn’t big enough for him and Moshe. Judaism is a religion that encourages disagreement and dissent and argument. Just look at the Talmud. Just look around us in this country. What matters in Judaism are one’s motives.
Korach’s motive was personal gain. He just wanted the honor and the perceived perks of the job.
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar from modern day politics, in our country, in other countries, please be assured that the connections you make are purely coincidental and the product of overworked minds and imaginations.