During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Andrew Nusbaum.
This week we read of Korah’s famous rebellion against his cousin Moses. Korah is often seen as an archetype of demagoguery, and the rabbis of the Talmud delight in expanding on his punishments (one account says he was swallowed down to She’ol and was doomed to spend eternity repeating, “Moses was right! The Torah is Truth!”), or explaining just what was so terrible about his revolt. To me, that tradition has so emphatically cast Korah to the margins suggests that there was something threatening about his story. Indeed, the heart of the rebellion seems to be a question with very modern echoes: by what authority do Moses and Aaron have the right to be leaders of the Hebrews?
At first glance, the answer to this question seems obvious: Moses and Aaron’s authority comes from God, end of story, case closed. However Korah is not satisfied: in a likely reference to God’s earlier command that the Hebrews are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), Korah retorts that “all the community are holy… and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)
To many rabbinical commentators, this smacks of chutzpah, and thereby vindicates Korah’s subsequent punishment. Korah, we are told, is not sincere in his protests—he is not actually concerned about the larger argument that all of Israel is holy or in reimagining the priestly/clan structure along more communal divisions of power. Rather, they argue that Korah was motivated by a desire for personal power. Not only that, Korah not only challenged political authority but also spiritual authority—questioning Moses’ right to lead the people, as well as Aaron’s right to serve as High Priest and offer sacrifices to God. Rashi imagines a dialogue between Moses and his cousin which focuses on the fact that God, not Moses, created the world with inherent boundaries: just as day is divided from night, so too there are divisions between the Jewish people, by caste and by position. The Medieval Sefer Ha-Chinuch agrees, pointing out that two mitzvot contained in Parsha Korah are that Kohanim and Levites are not to do each other’s work; it goes so far as to argue that Levites who did the work of a Kohen (or did work assigned to another Levite) might be struck down by God! The argument seems to be that Aaron’s position (and those of subsequent generations) was decided and conferred by God, not his brother, and that by rebelling against the “divine order,” Korah threatens the entire system the Jewish people (and by association, God) are using to create order from chaos.
Some may find this argument compelling, and depending on your perspective, there is much to support it. After all, we are told repeatedly throughout the Torah that Moses and Aaron’s roles were ordained by God—with little mention of Korah or his followers. And there is something very comforting about the image of a world created with innate boundaries and roles for its inhabitants. However this argument, to me at least, falls a bit flat. I have always been troubled by the lack of engagement with Korah’s main point, one increasingly resonant today. If indeed, as we claim Judaism teaches, all people are holy, is there not an element of contradiction in the concept of having specific people be leaders and others not?
The answer, I believe, has to do with further exploring exactly what leadership, as well as holiness, means.
Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) argued that Judaism has had a long-running debate as to whether holiness was acquired or intrinsic: do webecome holy by following divine instruction or are we inherently holy by being made by God, in God’s image? Leibowitz convincingly claimed that both strains have authentic roots in our tradition, but also eloquently illustrated that the challenge of the second approach is its potential for self-satisfaction, and thus inertia: if I become overly convinced in my inherent holiness, I may decide that no further growth is needed. Similarly, I may become so satisfied with the accomplishments or merits of my specific group that I lose sight of the personal work that I am required to do in order to be a good person. As Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) wrote, “being holy is more than reciting a slogan or using simplistic catchphrases.”
This is not to say that there are not pitfalls in the first approach, either: it is certainly possible to become equally hyper-focused on the need to acquire holiness through mitzvot (and, by extension, to view oneself or others as deficient if they do not practice the way you do, or feel that they should). However in the end Leibowitz seems to be more comfortable with a Judaism that views holiness as a process or a goal, rather than starting with the view that it is already a fait-accompli.
For all the invective thrown Korah’s way, there are a few voices in the tradition that defend him. The Mei Ha-Shiloach and the Netziv, two giants from the Hasidic and Yeshiva streams respectively, see some merit in Korah. The Mei Ha-Shiloach (R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854), a Hasidic iconoclast who was a peer and close follower of the Kotzker Rebbe, greatly admired Korah, even commenting that some of his teachers had referred to him as “Grandfather Korah.” The Mei Ha-Shiloach said that Korah was fundamentally correct in his point about the entire people being holy, and that his only error was in not recognizing that the people would not be ready for such a utopian equality until the days of the Messiah. Rather than focusing on the personality of Korah, the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Berlin, 1816-1893), a famous leader of the Volozhin Yeshiva, turned his attention to the understated footnote to the Korah story: after Korah and his followers are killed, the parsha tells us that God directed Moses to take their fire pans and hammer them into plating for the altar. Why? The text says, “once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred.” (Num. 17:3) Unlike other commentators who say that anything used for worship is automatically made sacred, or that this is meant to be a warning to other would-be challengers to Moses’, Aaron’s or God’s authority, the Netziv sees this as a clue to Korah and his followers’ true intentions: they were not power-hungry cynics or rebels, but men with a sincere desire to serve God, who chafed at what (to them) may have seemed like unnecessary or unjustified intermediaries.
While most of the tradition’s backing of Moses over Korah may seem like a simple case of history being written by the victors, it may also illustrate some of the qualities the Torah is suggesting are important in leadership. When Moses is confronted by his cousin, his first reaction is not to become angry or argue, but to “fall on his face,” interpreted as consulting with God for guidance. He then tries to reason with his cousin, as well as attempts to meet separately with the other leaders of the rebellion. When these appeals are rejected, rather than muster his followers to attack, as in the Golden Calf, or castigate them as he did with the spies, Moses tries something counter-intuitive: he gives Korah what he wants.
Remember, Korah’s claim, at least in part, is that he is as qualified to offer sacrifices as Aaron. This is quite a bold claim given that just a few chapters ago, the entire people witnessed the death of Nadav and Abihu for offering a non-sanctioned sacrifice—and these were Aaron’s own sons, Kohanim who theoretically would have potentially been in line to become future high priests! And what does Moses do? In an early echo of Elijah’s duel with the priests of Baal, he essentially challenges Korah to a sacrifice contest with Aaron—a contest he loses.
Some have argued that Moses sets Korah up, knowing that his sacrifice will not be accepted and that it will end in death—something the Torah suggests by having Moses demand in advance that God only punish Korah’s followers, and not the entire community. However the other way to look at it is that, after all other options have been exhausted, Moses effectively steps aside and simply lets the events happen. Rather than fight or argue, he leaves the decision up to God. One important quality of being a leader is knowing when to fight, and when to step aside and let things take their course. Another quality is knowing how to fight. Just as the rabbis criticize Korah for his ridicule of Moses, they praise Moses for keeping his temper. The Talmud says that one of the things the world depends on is a person restraining themselves during a dispute. What a concept compared to our current discourse!
The rabbis of the Talmud use the story of Korah attacking Moses as a classic example of an argument “not for the sake of Heaven,” contrasting it with Hillel and Shammai, who strongly disagreed with each other but still recognized that their debates were happening within a productive context of respect. Hillel and Shammai were opponents, but not enemies. Their goal was to better understand the word of God and his wishes for how the Jewish people should live. Korah, the rabbis argue, was fighting for a dictatorship at best and total anarchy at worst. Whether we agree with this interpretation, there is certainly no question that issues of what respectful debate looks like seem incredibly timely to us today.
Regardless of one’s political positions, it is clear that we are living in a time where the concept of respectful (much less productive) debate seems not only passé, but almost quaint. Regardless of whether one focuses on the world stage, national politics, local news, or intra-Jewish debates, the trend seems to be overwhelmingly stacked towards shrillness, venom and negativity. Rather than argue for why a position is right or explaining why an argument is factually correct, we see talking heads taking potshots at each other. To paraphrase Leibowitz, demagoguery did not die with the sons of Korah.
The seventh Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), argued that Korah’s primary problem was envy: he did not like the natural hierarchy that God had created. But, the rebbe argued, the fact that Korah did not like his place on the spiritual ladder did not change the fact that the ladder existed, anymore than night and day exist. The Mei Ha-Shiloach, on the other hand, saw Korah as anticipating the Messianic age when all righteous people will dance in a circle, pointing to God in the center and rejoicing. Is there any way to reconcile these positions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (b. 1948) thinks so: in his view, the fundamental mistake of Korah was not envy, nor timing, but in perception. Korah thought Moses was raising himself above the people, but Rabbi Sacks argues that Moses was not interested in glory or power —merely service. Rather than being ambitious, we are repeatedly told of Moses’ humility. He is not described as a leader, but as a servant of the Lord. Judaism, Sacks argues, offers a model of leadership that focuses on tasks, not position. Per this definition, a priest or a prophet is not seen as above someone else, merely someone with a different role to play. Everyone is holy, but not everyone can necessarily be a leader—at least, not a good one.
These days, many of us do not believe that our leaders are appointed for us by God, ironically causing one element of Korah’s argument to come true. Today, there is nothing stopping anyone from becoming a leader, if they are willing to put in the work and make their case, whether in the realm of politics, entertainment or Torah. Modern democracy and the information age have made authority accessible to any who wish to claim it; all that is needed are followers. And this potential for anyone to be heard offers a final, important lesson for us: we are only as righteous, as humble, or as holy as we demand our leaders be. It is up to our leaders to put their best selves forward, and for us to choose wisely. As the old line says, “We get the leaders we deserve”—and if we can’t find the ones we want, perhaps we need to become them.