Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Torah teaches us to speak truth to power, to challenge authority for the sake of a greater good. Contrary to so many other ancient traditions, which equated disagreement with disloyalty, and often punished it with death, both Abraham and Moses are able to successfully challenge God. Even more, they survived!
Enter Korach (cue scary music).
Korach challenged Moses for the leadership of Israel. He used language surprisingly reminiscent of democracy (an idea that would not exist for several thousand years). His words seem just on the surface, and Moses responds with humility, inviting Korach and his followers into dialogue. However, they refuse.
In the showdown which follows, God demonstrates divine support for Moses with spectacular drama, destroying Korach and his followers in a terrible and precise earthquake which miraculously leaves Moses and the rest of Israel untouched.
The classical rabbinic commentators condemn Korach, not because he challenged authority, but because he challenged authority for the wrong reason. He did not seek to replace Moses for the sake of Israel, or as the rabbis would put it, ‘for the sake of heaven.’ Instead he was motivated by greed and ego. Moses, in stark contrast, was consistently described as humble and a leader who understood his role as one of service, not self-aggrandizement.
The Korach story is among the most important in Torah, because it teaches us to refine our understanding of how to pursue justice. Leadership is a sacred responsibility and trust, and when that trust is violated, we must challenge our leaders. However, even in the Israelite community, where God visibly dwelled in the midst of the camp as a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, were those who sought leadership with cynicism and malice, those who only cared for themselves and not for the community. If this could happen there, in the presence of God, then how much the more so for us.
Yet we can model ourselves on Moses and not Korach. Let us refute lies with truth, ego with humility, hate with love, and indifference with compassion as we continue to seek our way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
That is the path of Torah.
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