Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
If the first part of the book of Numbers is about making plans to keep things in order, this middle part is about how life gets messy. Last week the Israelites were condemned to 40 years of wandering the in wilderness because they let their fears trump their faith, panicking after the report of the 12 spies. Then, in direct violation of God’s command, they attacked the Canaanites they previously thought of as “giants” and suffered a devastating defeat.
This week a challenger to Moses’ leadership arises. Korach, a member of Moses’ own tribe, attempts to set himself up as the next leader with a two part “stump speech.” First, he describes all of Israel as holy, and suggests that they deserve better than Moses. Second, he accuses Moses of nepotism, imposing his and Aaron’s leadership upon the people (conveniently ignoring God’s role in all of this) and suggests that the people should choose their own leader – one who would be better than Moses (meaning Korach).
Let’s review some facts about what has already happened up to this point. First, before God chose Moses, the Israelites suffered generations of slavery in Egypt. Second, Moses was the reluctant leader of the Israelites, chosen against his wishes by God at the Burning Bush. Third, God demonstrated Divine power and faith with Israel through the Plagues, parting the Reed Sea and the Revelation at Sinai. Fourth, the troubles the Israelites suffered in last week’s portion were a direct result of their own actions, not Moses.
Yet this week, Korach implies that everything is Moses’ fault. And the Israelites listen.
Even after God causes the ground to swallow Korach and his followers alive, the Israelites continue to murmur against Moses. Once again, God decides to the destroy the people, and once again Moses comes to their rescue.
Why does this pattern repeat itself? Why can’t the Israelites seem to grasp the reality of their circumstances?
Last week’s Torah portion explored how fear and other strong negative emotions can distort our perceptions and lead to poor decisions. This week we see how misleading language can be toxic. Korach plays on the fears of the people in his grab for power, but he does something else as well: he uses innuendo to suggest falsehood and spread rumors. The rabbis call this lashon hara, “the evil tongue,” and consider it the worst of all possible sins because of its insidious nature. They understood that even if people only believe half of what they hear, they still believe half of what they hear.
I once heard of a psychological study (I think it was done in the 60s or 70s) where a group of public elementary school teachers were told (at random) over the summer break which of their incoming students were good and which were trouble. To the horror of the researchers, the random prediction played out perfectly during the school year, as the teachers subconsciously treated each student according to what they had been told. The experiment was stopped, and the students reassigned, and the results were devastating.
Korach cynically used lashon hara and fear mongering to grab political power. While in other places in the Torah it is acceptable to challenge authority, even God’s authority, Korach is destroyed for his rebellion. The difference is simple and striking. When Abraham and Moses challenge God, they do so on behalf of others and for l’shem hashamayim (for the sake of heaven), not for their own personal gain. They are rewarded, Korach is punished. Torah could not be clearer: leadership is a form of service, not a tool for self-aggrandizement.
Yet, just one day after Korach was killed, the Israelites still repeated his lies and murmured against Moses. Korach’s lies not only brought ruin upon himself but were so insidious that they continued to infect Israel even after his death – obfuscating them from seeing the truth. As Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman put it: “Gossip kills three: the speaker, the spoken of, and the listener.” (BeMidbar Rabbah 19.2)
Some political leaders have followed Korach’s playbook for as long as there have been political leaders. Communities always suffer as a result.
Torah reminds us that the ‘end does not justify the means,’ but that the means determines the end. How we act determines who we become; how we govern ourselves determines who we become as a community.
We cannot leave this lesson unlearned: “When people do not appreciate a good leader, they get a wicked leader.” (Sefer Hasidim 13C, #225)
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