For those who believe in peaceable protest and the rights of all people to assemble in a democratic setting, this week’s Torah portion can prove to be problematic. Not only does Moses quash the rights of others who are protesting the authority of Moses and Aaron to lead the Jewish people, but God has the leaders swallowed up by the earth and a plague set down on the people that kills more than 14,000 people.
But looking a little deeper into this curious parshat, the story of Korach and his followers, we find that – much like anything in the Torah – that what is on the surface is not what it seems to be. There are great, very timely lessons here on leadership, the rise of dangerous demagogues, the right to protest and even how anger can get the best of a person.
Korach, we are told, was a cousin of Moses who bristled under his authority. He was a Levite who wanted to be afforded the same priestly blessings as the more sanctified kohen gadol. He could not understand why a God who offered up the ideals that all are created equal by bringing Jews out of slavery could then bestow a form of a caste system, where one class of Jews is considered higher than another in the eyes of God.
So he rebels, asking to be given equal authority to Moses and Aaron. Korach states 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).
He goes further in his rants, asking why a mezuzah is needed when an entire house is holy. He has followers, some who go so far as to ask why they left Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to cause them to die in the wilderness.
Moses offers lessons in leadership in his reply to this challenge to his authority. He asks whether it is not enough that the people have freedom and the ability to plant their own gardens. He understands that Korach is not asking for equality or equal rights in this case but is only wanting priestly power for himself. It’s a pure power grab.
Rabbi Shimon Felix writes about Korach and his adherents. They are depicted as wanting, taking, desiring things for themselves . Moses says “Is it but a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the community of Israel to bring you near to him, to do the work in the Tabernacle of God and to stand before the congregation to serve them? He has brought you and all your brothers the sons of Levi near, and you also ask for priesthood?”
Modern commentaries express the view that Korach is a populist, the first demogogue who makes himself sound like a man of the people but instead is self-aggrandizing, wanting to be the person in charge even though he hasn’t proven himself as a leader of people. Rashi goes on to say that the difference between Moses and Korach is that Moses is serving the people and is not merely interested in his personal gain but the gain for the entire community of Israelites. Korach just wants his own piece of the priestly blessings.
Anyone who listens to classic rock might remember an old Who song, “You Won’t Get Fooled Again,” where singer Roger Daltry mocks some modern protests that just want to bring someone else to power. “Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Anyway, Moses is humble, even falling on his face in one instance when confronted in a sign of acquiesance. He even allows Korah to give a priestly sacrifice, even though he knows that God will not accept it. God responds negatively; in fact, he wipes Korach and two of his followers off the face of the earth. So much for ancient demogogery.
But Moses’ anger issues also crop up and get the best of him. He tells God, after hearing that many of the Jews in the desert question why Korach was killed and why they have gone into the wilderness, to do what he wants with them. God responds with a devastating plague that kills 14,700 people. Moses pleads for him to stop this and to allow the Jewish people to live, rather than start anew with just Moses and Aaron. God responds and stops the plague, thank goodness.
There are some scholars, including Maimonedes, who conjecture that Moses’ anger – leading to a plague that could have led to catastrophe – was one reason he was denied entrance by God to Canaan. But we’ll never know, will we?
There are other lessons at play here. According to Rabbi Bradley Artson, who once spoke at Beth El, even though we are all equal in the eyes of God, that does not mean we are all the same. There is diversity in thought and action among all of us. Some are born leaders who understand the need to serve others and bring good to a society, while others have roles that fit their personalities. We are not all the same.
Artson quotes the Midrash, who states that God created light and darkness and allowed each to serve its purpose. He writes that the midrash continues, “just as God distinguished the light from the darkness in order that that it might be of service to the world, so God made Israel distinct from the other nations… and in the same manner distinguished Aaron (and Moses).”
Moses and Aaron were distinctly chosen to bring the Jewish people to the land of Canaan and to freedom. Their mission was to make us distinct, a separate people from others. While it is argued that everyone has intrinsic worth, only some are born to lead.
Parallels can be drawn to the racial protests of the past few weeks. These are not the same as the hollow, selfish protests of Korach and his followers. Instead, tired of police brutality and being marginalized in society, the black community is fighting for its own distinctiveness, its own freedom from oppression, for diversity and for the rights to live in peace.
Jews, who had fought for this freedom from slavery in Egypt and for their own distinctiveness, should respond positively to these goals, as we can all relate from our own struggles.
As long as it is for a just cause, we can all speak up and give voice to change when needed. We should also individually stand up for ourselves, as no one else can do that. As another religious leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
As we know as Jews, we cannot sit idly by when there is inhumanity that must be addressed. But we need strong leaders too, those that can make change a reality.
The parsha ends with Moses and Aaron marking their territory by planting a staff in the wilderness that soon blossoms into flowers. Just like these leaders will blossom by leading its sometimes dubious followers to the land of milk and honey, the land of Canaan.