The Desert's Populist
Vayikach Korach (and Korach took…) are the opening words of this week’s Torah portion without any reference to what was taken. An insightful Midrash suggests that he took “himself.”
Korach, Moses’ first cousin, was talented, articulate and ambitious. It was toward the end of the 40-year trek in the desert, and the Israelites were restive, fatigued and unsure of their future. Most of the adult generation that had witnessed the Exodus was now gone. The sameness of life in the desert was terribly burdensome, and the stated goal of conquest and settlement of the Promised Land was still an unrealized dream.
Korach, sensing the increasing disillusionment with Moses, openly challenged him. With the support of a cadre of elders he took himself (i.e. he raised himself up as the champion of the people). He was the classic prototype of the populist, thundering, “All of the people are holy, and why have you raised yourself over us all?” He pictured Moses as an elitist, while describing himself as a true man of the people.
Korach made his move shortly after Moses was challenged by his two older siblings, Aaron and Miriam, who insisted that they too were worthy of directly hearing God’s words. The Divine response was that Moses had two sterling qualifications: he was the most upright of God’s people and yet the most humble.
Korach’s attempt ultimately failed. His true character came to light when he spurned Moses’ offer to meet and hopefully reach a compromise possibly creating a new status quo in which he might have a significant role. He perceived Moses’ humility as a weakness, paying scant attention to his basic and admirable integrity. It was this hubris that led to Korach’s downfall. In the Bible’s words, “the earth swallowed him up.” The force of this description is that he disappeared from the scene as if consumed by the very environment he sought to dominate.
The Bible’s magic is in its grasp of human nature. It tells us of Cain’s envy of Abel that led to the terrible act of fratricide, the ongoing reality of sibling rivalry and family disharmony, the excessive appetite of kings and leaders, the corruption of the cult by venal priests and the stranglehold of the “haves” over the “have-nots.”
Korach’s burning ambition to court popular support to achieve his personal goal is obviously not a solitary incident in human history. This manipulation has been replicated to this very day, all too often with disastrous consequences for the targeted community, society or nation.
Excessive ego is an accepted characteristic of a leader. He/she must be confident in the ability to assure the populace’s welfare. Moses’ total humility, while one-of-a-kind, and his total integrity are ongoing challenges before every aspiring leader. These two divine criteria of unflinching honesty and a healthy dose of humility are a challenge for each of us, and certainly for the men and women who aspire to leadership.
The leader who insists he can do no wrong, who over and again demonstrates that it’s all about me is tragically an anti-Moses and as a contemporary disciple of Korach deserves to be replaced.
From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.
Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar