By Abraham Havivi
Korach—a gripping story:
“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben— 2to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 3They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘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?’”
(Numbers. 16:1-4, new JPS trans.)
Korach’s rebellion–prime example of “machloket sh’lo l’shem shamayim” (an argument not for the sake of Heaven)—M. Avot 5:21
Complicated story–joint rebellion by multiple factions joining together against leadership of Moses & Aaron; Rashi, following the Midrash Tanchuma, explains each had their own selfish their motivations—K upset that M & A (his first cousins)—both the political and the religious leader–were siblings from same family; and, that Elitzaphan was named chief (nasi) of Kehat clan (son of Amram’s youngest b., rather than the next b., K’s father); the 250 nesi’im (chieftains) were first-born—they were upset that Levites were appointed to serve at mishkan in their stead (“k’doshim”); Datan & Aviram from Reuben were jealous that Joshua was M’s 2nd in command, in line to be the next leader, from tribe of Ephraim, completing the process of House of Joseph supplanting Reuben, bypassing their first-born status
So—this was a coalition of people who all had their own selfish motivations, but rather than articulating them, they cloaked their challenge in the language of populism—“The entire congregation is holy”—the entire congregation is holy—but, in reality, they wanted to be the leaders, rather than M & A, and the kohanim and levi’im
K seen by Jewish tradition as arch-example of a demagogue
What is a demagogue? Why is the word used so critically? (Should just mean “leader of the people”, no?) OED–demos signifies “people” as a mob—“A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests” –this is not CNN’s words– it’s the OED!
Interesting machloket about the machloket between 2 commentators about when the K rebellion happened. Ibn Ezra says these events happened about 3 parshas ago, when the people were still in the wilderness of Sinai—before the spies, before the complaining about food and the miracle of the quails, basically at the beginning of Parshat Naso—right after the census, and the organization of the camp, and the establishment of the Levites’ tasks; at that point, the entire leadership that the K group complained about was in place, so it makes sense to Ibn Ezras that that’s when they mounted the rebellion; (he adds that the tribe of Reuben encamped to the South, and the Levitical family of Kehat, K’s family was in the South, adjacent to Reuben, so there is a moralistic point he makes about living adjacent to a wicked neighbor)
Ramban (150 yrs. later) disagrees; he says that Ibn Ezra accepts the principle of “eyn mukdam u’me’uchar batorah” (one needn’t accept that the order of narratives in the Torah reflects the historical order of events)—this is an idea that first appears in the Talmud and midrashim, which not all Sages accept—that the Torah does not necessarily relate events in the sequence in which they actually happened; Ramban says that, with rare exceptions, the Torah tells of events in their correct chronological order; this disagreement is, apparently, a standing one between the two commentators; so, for Ramban, the K rebellion takes place now, after the account of the spies
But this then forces the Ramban to address the issue of, Why now? If the leadership parameters about which the K gang was complaining, had been set some time ago, and in an entirely different geographic location—they had since moved on to the wilderness of Paran–why did K and his band wait until now to mount their rebellion?
Here’s where Ramban’s comment gets interesting. He says: When the Israelites were back in the wilderness of Sinai, before they started to travel, if anyone had anyone tried to rebel against Moses’s leadership, they would have had no following—in fact, says the Ramban, the people would have stoned such rebels, they would have killed them. This is because Bnei Yisrael had total faith in Moses’s leadership; the only bad thing that had happened to them was their punishment after the sin of the Golden Calf; God had wanted to destroy the entire nation, M prayed to God on their behalf and saved them, because God retracted the threat, and only a small number of Calf worshippers died
However, by this point in the story, several other misfortunes had recently befallen the Israelites; they had complained about the boredom of the daily manna—remember, they missed the watermelons etc. of Egypt, that was 2 weeks ago, in B’ha’alot’cha—and both before and after God sent the miracle of the quails—they were punished twice, before the quails with a fire and after the quails with a plague; then, last week, in Shelach, we had the sin of the spies; God again threatened to destroy the entire nation except for Moses, and Moses prayed on their behalf—but, acc. to Ramban, he didn’t pray for full forgiveness, as he had after the Golden Calf, but only that God wouldn’t destroy the whole people; So, God listened to M’s plea, and didn’t wipe them out entirely, but—the whole generation was sentenced to die in the desert. So, according to Ramban, at this point, the people’s faith in M’s leadership flagged; he says, “Az haya nefesh kol ha’am marah”, now the whole nation’s spirit was bitter–people were dispirited. M had let them down, and bad things had happened, and they were suffering. So now K saw his opportunity—he and his band had been resentful before, since they had felt passed over, but they had no chance to whip up support, when the nation felt confident in their destiny and confident in their leader; now, when their leader had failed them, and when they were feeling battered—K seized his moment. When BY felt secure and well-led, they weren’t open to a demagogue’s appeal; when they were hurting, K knew that his opportunity had come.
Ramban’s insight, coming us to from across seven centuries, is strikingly contemporary. This is what so many pundits, historians, and economists have been writing about the last few years. You’ve all read it many times, so I won’t belabor the point. We live in a time when many across the Western world have found a creeping authoritarianism appealing. Economies seem shakier, the immigrants keep coming—as Nicholas Kristof says, fleeing the world of disorder to find a toehold in the world of order—and people no longer feel confident that their leaders have the people’s interests at heart—“the elites are out of touch.” Ours is a time of insecurity and anxiety, when few of us believe that our children will have it easier and better as adults than we had it. And so, demagogues–would-be leaders who sense the peoples’ fear and disappointment, and know how “to appeal to the passions and prejudices of the mob”—remember the OED definition–see their golden moment. They are truly interested, in the OED’s words, in seizing power and furthering their own interests, rather than the true interests of the people. This is Korach’s time.
But perhaps Ramban’s insight also points a way forward for us. In his understanding, the main problem, it seems, wasn’t K. He was there all along, waiting for his opportunity. The problem was the nation’s spirit—nefesh ha’am. It was marah—bitter, or maybe, sour. Disgruntled. Disaffected. K was just looking for the right moment. So, maybe potential demagogues are always in the wings, waiting for their cue. It’s the people—the demos—that can allow K an opening, or can shut him out. Erdogan, Orban, etc., even Hitler—they all won popular votes, right? Their people had the opportunity to keep them away from power. In the Western world, at least for now, still, the demagogues have to stand for election. If our leaders were to lead in a way that strengthens people’s spirit—the nefesh ha’am—then people would be more likely to feel optimistic and confident in their national life, and savor a sense of national destiny. Then the am would feel capable and stand strong. And, it’s not only on the leaders—in discussing this with my daughter before Shabbat, she made the point that the people need to recognize their potential for agency, regardless of how the leaders conduct themselves–it’s the obligation of the am to clearly see the demagogues for who they really are. Then, no one would pay Korach any mind.
Perhaps, as in our parsha, God will intervene to set things straight. But maybe, as they say nowadays, the grownups aren’t coming to save us, and we’ll have to do it ourselves. May Hashem help us find the wisdom and courage to meet our challenges, and the vision to discern our choices clearly.