This week’s parasha contains the story of ‘Korach’s Rebellion’. The reasons for this are many. They had just been told by G-d that none of those who had left Egypt would enter the land and on top of that, had suffered a humiliating military defeat. The people’s morale was at an all time low. Korach, like a skillful politician, used that emotion to question Moshe’s leadership. After all, where had it gotten them? There is a midrash that comments on the allegation (based on v.16:15) that some of the rebels were even accusing Moshe and Aaron of becoming rich at their expense, all couched in the Law of G-d.
Ultimately, the main reason for the rebellion is contained in v. 16:3. They claimed that Moshe had usurped power and authority that belonged to all the people of G-d. All Israel was holy, therefore Moshe and Aaron should not be elevated above them. The following midrash ties this in with the command of the Tzitzit, which seems oddly placed and interrupts the narrative. But we know that Torah is the way it is because G-d wanted it that way so it must be there for a reason. It describes this conversation between Korach and Moshe.
"'And Korach took'(16:1): What parasha precedes this episode? - 'Speak to the Israelites concerning the making of Tzitzit (fringes).'(15:34) Korach jumped up and turned to Moses: 'You say, "Put on the fringe a thread of blue (tekhelet) wool." (ibid.) What about a garment that is itself a blue color (tekhelet), would it not be exempt from the blue thread (on the Tzitzit)?' Moses replied, 'It is obligatory to have the blue thread.' Said Korach, 'A garment which is all blue is not exempt and four meager threads do the trick!?' (Midrash Tanchumah)
Korach’s point is that a garment that is completely blue (the holy nation of Israel) does not need fringes containing Techelet (special leadership). He was stating that all the people are holy and G-d is among them, therefore there is no need for leaders or intermediaries. The two sides are these, as it relates to holiness. Is holiness a characteristic of the Jewish people by virtue of their blood, is it something innate, or is holiness something one must strive for, a state that is achieved? If it is the former, then there is no good reason for Moshe and Aaron to be leaders as opposed to anyone else. If it is the latter, Korach’s argument doesn’t hold much water.
Moshe sets up a test. If they want to have the position of priest, they may go before G-d in a priestly fashion and see if he accepts them. If Korach is correct, that all the people of Israel are equally holy, then there should not be a problem. We know that was not the case by the results. G-d had decreed that the descendants of Levi (not Reuven) are to serve in the Mishkan, and the descendants of Aaron (not Korach) are to serve as the high priests. The others were consumed. Korach was incorrect.
Israel, as a nation is holy, they are sanctified by the sovereign choice of G-d, by His grace, if you will. So in that sense, Korach is right. Korach, however, wanted to use that grace to exalt himself, to take a shortcut to true practical holiness (as opposed to ‘positional holiness’) and assume the privileges that go with it. Often we get impatient and our pride can get in the way, as Korach’s did. We think we can do things better than the people whom G-d has established in leadership or authority but we ignore the process of maturity G-d has wrought in their lives to get them there. Moshe was trained by G-d for forty years in the desert, learning how to be a true shepherd. Korach had only just begun. There are no shortcuts to holiness, maturity and the privileged uses to which such people are put by G-d. It takes time, study, prayer and experience. We must be slow to lay hands on anyone for those whom G-d has not adequately trained will only lead to rebellion and disaster, the effects of which may take a long time to repair.
The main focus this week is the conflict between Moshe and Korach and it is a contrast in two individuals’ ideas of leadership. Understanding biblical leadership, what it means to be called by G-d and what makes a good leader are questions that need to be answered because we all recognize bad leadership when we see it and we’ve all be hurt in some way by it. The question is, how can we recognize and develop true biblical leadership. By looking at the contrast between Korach and Moshe, we can come to an understanding of what a godly leader is and isn’t.
What was Korach? Korach was a very skilled politician. He was patient and manipulative and he waited until the proper time to make his move. He was a son of Levi just as Aaron, yet the priesthood passed him by. Leadership in his own clan did not fall upon his shoulders. He was frustrated that people did not give him what he though was his due. I am sure he was going throughout the camp, encouraging the complaining that was going on constantly. He slowly built his coalition of respected men and when the time was right, he made a grab for power. The people were discouraged, they had just been condemned to wander in the desert for forty years and had been defeated in battle. Moshe was telling them to head back toward the Sea of Reeds. They wanted another alternative. They wanted someone to tell them they did not have to shoulder the consequences of their rebellion. They wanted to hear that everything was all right, that they wouldn’t have to wait, that the good times were just around the corner; just follow ‘me’ instead of ‘him’.
What was Korach’s pitch? He stressed the equality of all, the whole assembly was holy. They all had the right to make decisions, to determine their direction. He appealed to the masses and accused Moshe of being a harsh dictator. They accused Moshe or enriching himself at everyone’s expense. They didn’t need Moshe and Aaron, in fact they would probably be better off without them. They left a land flowing with milk and honey where life was good (Egypt in their eyes) and it’s gone from bad to worse ever since. ‘This idea of being the chosen people is too hard, let’s go back where we came from.’
A leader that follows Korach’s model will concentrate mostly on himself, attack others, seek to accumulate money perhaps by making constant appeals or charging exorbitant prices for his ‘unique and one of a kind’ material. He or she will appeal to the masses by emphasizing the lowest common denominator. Success is defined in terms of dollars and number of people ‘supporting’ them, not in the creation of truly righteous, godly individuals and communities.
What about Moshe? Moshe never sought leadership or recognition. He would have been happy living out his life in the wilderness as a shepherd. He had a heart for the people and what was best for them, he protected them, interceded for them even when they rebelled and yet had the courage to lead them to the best rather than the easiest. He never took anything from them, he did not seek to be a paid rabbi. While being paid by the community frees one up in some ways, the bondage that results is worse. The freedom to lead as G-d directs is lost because now one’s meals are dependent on keeping in the majority’s good graces. And there is something very important about work, physical labor, providing for yourself and your family that is lost when you no longer rub elbows on the ‘outside’.
Finally, and most importantly, G-d anointed Moshe’s leadership in a way that it was obvious to all. He operated in a realm of spiritual power that is only available to the most righteous and the humble. Men and women who follow his example and that of the ‘prophet like him’, Yahushua, will lead in ways that will build up the community and create equals who will go out and draw even more people through their example and service.
This weeks parasha is a perfect contrast between the way G-d wants things done and the way man desires to do things. YHVH has an order to the universe and when we try to operate outside that order, or change it, the results are clear-and bad. The Torah and haftorah portion illustrate this very well.
In our Torah portion, Korach and some of his friends from Reuven attempt to take over the assembly. Korach probably harbored jealousy towards his cousin Aaron, the high priest. Even though he had important duties in the tabernacle, he wanted to have the highest position. The sons of Reuven, who had lost their honored firstborn position since their namesake defiled Ya’akov’s bed, wanted restoration to their firstborn position as well. The had probably been sitting around the campfire, complaining about Moshe and Aaron, complaining about being left in the wilderness, thinking they could do a better job. They were wondering why they could not have the leadership positions in Israel. Their arguments in 16:3 says it all. They believe that the entire people of Israel is equally holy, therefore any one of them could do Moshe’s or Aaron’s job and it is only because these two men who have exalted themselves above the congregation that they have taken so many wrong turns and been left to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Talk about spin!
They neglected to mention the fact that Moshe spent forty years in the desert preparing for his leadership position, learning what it meant to be a shepherd. Had he not learned this lesson, he wouldn’t have stood in the way of G-d’s wrath so many times and preserved Korach and the rest of them. They neglected the fact that G-d Himself set up the order of the priesthood and gave Aaron, Korach and the rest of the Levites specific roles top play in that order so that everything concerning the Tabernacle would go smoothly. This was crucial because the spiritual health of the entire community depended on it.
But Korach wanted equality and Reuven wanted to remove the consequences of his ancestor’s actions. They and G-d had opposite views of reality. Korach wanted to make everyone equal, no one would be special, no one would be different. Everyone has the same privileges and it was his turn to be the priest. It was Reuven’s turn to lead. Everything reduced to the lowest common denominator. In the haftorah portion, The people desire a king like the other nations, they wanted to be the same as other peoples and they ended up with Saul who was not of Judah and was outside G-d’s order. Although he was a good man to start, he did not have what it took in person or lineage, to be a good king over the long haul. Korach and Dathan would have destroyed the congregation in no time. After all, even Moshe had a tough time holding it together.
G-d is not in the equality business. He separates, He distinguishes, He is into merit selection. Moshe was trained for years to be a leader. He chose Aaron's line to be the priesthood. He knew David had the lineage and the character to be a great leader in Israel. When G-d makes choices and orders things, for whatever reason, it is our job to accept that order and maximize our contribution to it wherever we may find ourselves. That is Shalom.
This is one of the more depressing stories in the Torah because it involved so many people who perished needlessly. Let’s look at the story as a whole and as we do, we will identify two things missing from the people that could have averted the whole thing. The first thing we have is Korach and his group of men from the leaders of Israel who come up against Moshe. They apparently had not learned from the earlier incidents in which Miriam was stricken with leprosy or the spies died by a plague for fermenting rebellion from their evil report. They decided that working in the Mishkan was not enough, they wanted complete equality between themselves and Moshe and Aaron. Their pride was going to get them into a lot of trouble. They had not learned to accept the place God had for them according to their ability and talent. They were concerned only for themselves, the “I”, the ego, and not for the welfare of the group as a whole. When we are echad, there is no one exalted over another. Korach had removed himself from being echad and wanted to be superior. His pride blinded him and he was about to experience the consequences.
What did he miss? First, Moshe tried to talk them out of it and they refused to listen. Second, they allowed Moshe to set the ground rules for the contest and everyone knows that if you let your opponent set the rules and choose the feild, your chances of winning go down the tubes. He showed a lack of wisdom and no inclination for repentance, two things that will continue to be missing from our story.
They had gone down a particular path and the results of those choices started to bear fruit. Everyone watched while Korach and his immediate co-conspirators were swallowed up by the earth. Judgement had come before everyone’s eyes and what was the result? Fear and panic. Next, fire consumed the two hundred fifty men and their censers. The people had now seen judgement fall from their rebellion twice in a most horrible fashion. Did they learn? Obviously not. The next time the children of Israel show up in the story they are blaming Moshe for killing God’s people! They did not see that they were consumed in their own rebellion, that it was their pride that led them to their end. Why? Because they were just like Korach and his group. To admit it was Korach’s fault would be to admit their own. Their own rebellion now led to 14,000 deaths. And many more would have resulted if Moshe and Aaron had not taken action to preserve their lives. Even then they did not repent but simply fell into despair “Behold we perish, we are lost, all lost..”
The crux of the problem was this. They saw the intimacy Moshe and Aaron had with YHVH and they were jealous. They saw the spiritual power they exhibited and how that power had placed them in a position Korach wanted for himself. Korach was not interested in doing the work necessary to achieve such a spiritual state, he simple reasoned is way into it. He was one of the children of Israel, we should all be equal, I should have a turn at the helm, Moshe is unworthy to be there, his leadership has brought us nothing. He was blind to the facts that the reason Moshe did not achieve success in his mission to bring them into the land was their refusal to go! He and the rest of the Israelites had chosen a path and even though it took them farther from their goal, they had invested too much in it to admit they were wrong.
Too often we fit their pattern. We invest too much in our physical location, our things, our ideas, our theology. It is our pride, our ego, that keeps us from admitting we may be wrong, we don’t know it all. It keeps us from moving, from growing, from seeing things in a new light or just seeing new things. Our pride, our ego, our “I” is allowed to take precedence and we miss out on all the possibilities because our focus stays too narrow. Even when we do not have the results we want physically, spiritually or emotionally, we continue to plod the same course, making excuses and blaming everyone but ourselves.
Notice the kinds of people God chose to do his work in the Scriptures and those that have the most success. Nomads, shepherds, people who were often on the move, who did not have roots. Even after Israel settled in the land, they were to live a nomadic lifestyle for a week each year. I believe the reason for this is to keep them spiritually open to moving, learning and experiencing. Life is meant to be lived, and Internet aside, you cannot do that from either your physical or theological couch.