Would it be a stretch to say that Korach was the first Jewish post-modernist? His contention was that all of the people of Israel were equally holy, so what right did Moshe have to dare to lord it over them? In other words, all people being equal, their say (especially Korach’s) should be equal to that of Moshe’s.
Post-modernism says that there is no universal truth, and therefore, for example, you cannot judge a work of art by the standards used in the Renaissance or by anyone else, for that matter. The same goes for music, for language, and by extension, for ideas. You cannot judge one as inferior to others because that is a value judgment which, according to post-modernism, you don’t have the right to make.
This seems to be Korach’s argument. That all of Israel is equal and that one does not have the right to be above others. Except that, as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” he believes his word should be above the others, on the principle that “All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
Korach was a shrewd fellow and it is possible to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he may have been better than others. We should say except for Moshe, for two reasons: first Moshe had direct contact with God, and second, with all his power, he was extremely modest.
Now there’s a problem saying that. When we read the Bible, especially the story parts in the Torah and early prophets, we know that there is an agenda, only partially hidden. Overall, the agenda is to glorify David and his royal line to the exclusion of all others. We see this even in the story of Joseph, where Judah (the father of David’s tribe) plays a major role.
But in the Torah, the one person who is the undisputed champion, superstar, hero, and model of excellence is Moshe. His shortcomings and leadership lapses are mentioned but they seem piddling. He is the one and only. This means that we may not be able to judge Moshe completely objectively. Compared to the leaders of any people at any time in history, the way he is portrayed here, he is head and shoulders above them all. Let’s accept it as true.
Korach is a different type of leader. He is a populist. He seems to speak for all the people, as one of the people. But is he? He is a Levite, which already gives him some status. His 250 followers (not a large number considering there are 600,000 males and a total of 2 million people) are mainly princes and members of the tribe of Reuben.
These are the disenfranchised. The princes were once the people who served in the tabernacle. Now it’s the Levites and in matters of religion – Aharon, who has been appointed high priest. They have been made superfluous, for the most part. As for the Reubenites, their namesake was the firstborn of Yaacov and thus was supposed to be the overall leader. He wasn’t and his descendants weren’t. So there is a feeling of personal vendettas underlying the rebellion.
This is probably the low point in Moshe’s tenure. His brother and sister gossiped about him two weeks ago. The spies upset the apple cart completely last week. And today, Korach is impugning his integrity. How much lower can you go? This is the pits.
In fact, last week and this are the turning point in the exodus tale. The people brought upon themselves an extra 38 years of meandering the desert. Perhaps because of this, because there was no hope of eventually entering the land, Korach decided he had nothing to lose and so he now challenges Moshe’s authority.
In truth, we feel Moshe’s frustration. He has been subjected to such intense whining and complaining and backsliding – and all for what? Personal gain? No way. He has no family life. He is on call to God 24/7 and to the people 48/7 (or so it seems). Why would anyone even want his position?
Basically, Korach was ahead of his time. Modernism hadn’t been born yet, let alone post-modernism. What Korach said was true – but not relevant at that time. If he had spoken the same words in the time of the Judges, after Joshua had died and government was not centralized, he probably could have developed a fine following. In Canaan, God was not the direct provider of water and food (except through rain etc.). There was no one leader whose word was law. Korach could have done fine.
That’s history. A prime minister like Bibi or Barak or Olmert probably wouldn’t have succeeded where Ben Gurion did. BG was right for his time. He wouldn’t be elected dog collector today.
Which reminds us that in politics, it’s not location that matters, but timing. That fact has not changed.