Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Speak truth to power.
Before Torah, pharaohs and kings were seen as gods, and gods could never be challenged. Yet in Torah both Abraham and Moses directly and successfully challenge not only powerful foreign leaders, but even God! Speak truth to power - this is among the most radical teachings of Torah.
Abraham dared to challenge God in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, places so filled with evil that God determined that the only suitable solution was utter destruction. Abraham convinced God that the innocent should not be destroyed with the guilty, and asked God to spare the cities if fifty righteous people could be found among the population. Then amazingly, Abraham continued to negotiate, eventually bringing the number of innocent down to ten. God does not punish Abraham, God listens and then agrees that if ten righteous people could be found the cities would be spared. [Gen. 18:16 – 33]
Abraham challenged God once. Moses challenged God on several occasions, and always on the same theme: to save Israel from Divine punishment. The most famous of these instances is the Golden Calf. Moses has been with God at the top of the Mount Sinai for almost 40 days. Not knowing what Moses and God were doing, the Israelites began to panic, and built the Golden Calf. God became incensed and decided to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses challenged God not only on the basis of ethics, but also God’s own reputation among humanity. God listened to Moses and relented. [Ex. 32:1-14]
Korach is also a story of challenging power, but in more ways than one. Korach is a Levite, a cousin to Moses and Aaron. With his two lieutenants, Dathan and Abiram, Korach organizes a group of 250 leaders – chosen from among the tribes – to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He uses the language of democracy, saying: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” [Num. 16:3] Moses first tries to speak with them, but they refuse. Then Moses turns to God to protest his innocence, saying that not one of these men has been wronged by him. Finally, Moses asks that God choose between them.
What happens next is extraordinary. God appears before the entire assembly of Israel, and tells Moses and Aaron to move to a place of safety: Israel is to be destroyed. God has rejected Korach’s challenge because it is not about helping the people, but about grabbing power. Furthermore, because representatives from every tribe joined in, God holds all of Israel responsible. Moses and Aaron fall to their faces and challenge God again, asking that the innocent be spared. God again relents, but singles out Korach and his followers who all die dramatic supernatural deaths for the way they challenged God’s authority.
One might think the story would end here, but the next day, the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of bringing death to the people. Again, God tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people. Moses realizes that, this time, there is no time to argue with God, that the punishment has already begun in the form of a plague. So he sends Aaron not away from the people, but into their midst – with a fire pan for a guilt offering. For the first time, Moses and Aaron challenge God not just with words, but with deeds.
What happens next? Some of the Israelites die of the plague – a large number. But the overwhelming majority are spared. Even more, neither Moses nor Aaron are punished for directly disobeying God.
The story of Korach, Moses and Aaron helps us to understand that we can and should stand up to those who have power, but only for the right reasons. Leadership, in Torah terms, is about service. When our leaders truly serve the people, they deserve our support – even if we don’t agree on everything. However, when our leaders are poised to harm the people, even when it is God Almighty, Torah teaches us to stand up for what is right – even if doing so is dangerous.
Speaking truth to power – this is moral obligation Torah places upon us all.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras