All the community are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them! Why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of the Eternal?” (Bamidbar 16:3)

This story of Korach is a paradigmatic example of populist demagoguery. The would-be leader galvanizes followers with a true, inspiring, but ultimately empty and simplistic message: All of the people are holy! Korach’s aids, Datan and Aviram, address the fear, the insecurity, and the grief that the people are feeling, and harness it with a half-truth:

“Is it not enough that you took us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, but you also have to lord over us? (verse 13)”

To anyone who left their lives as slaves in a land where a variety of food was plentiful, who saw their friends and relatives killed in a hopeless battle against the Canaanites, and who then learned that they themselves would wander for the rest of their own lives in the desert, this is a message that rings very true. Moshe had tricked them and endangered them every step of the way! The challenge leveled at Pharaoh brought harsher labor. When they complain about food and water, the basics of survival, they are met with plagues and death. When ten out of twelve spies came back with what sounded like a realistic tactical assessment of the Canaanites, they were punished with a plague, and the survivors were doomed to wander in the desert. When they do try to go to battle against the inhabitants of the land they were promised, they lose badly.

Korach and his followers take this moment of deep collective insecurity, stoke those feelings even more, and offer themselves as leaders who will bring change. They offer no vision of what a better life might look like for Israel, but to their followers, that does not matter. They offer only a change in leadership; a simplistic solution to a simplistic view of the status quo.

Korach and his followers are typical of populist demagogues in another way, apart from their tactic of stoking rage against their current leadership by milking their fears and insecurities. They say “We stand for the average Israelite!” In this case, the core of the rebellion are not average Israelites, but elites themselves! Korach is a cousin of Moshe, a member of the leading Levite clan. Datan and Aviram are leaders of the tribe of Reuven. They are elites speaking in the name of the people. They tout true and good values, even democratic values: All of the community are holy! But they do so for the sole purpose of galvanizing a base so that they might grab more power.

A society can only be inoculated against demagoguery of this kind when its members are thoughtful enough to see through propaganda tactics, and aware enough of their history, and of their true current situation. Korach and his followers leave God and collective responsibility out of their narrative, and so their followers remain forgetful of what security and purpose they do have.

Moshe’s followers are not forgetful of the larger picture. They know what they have, and they know their responsibilities. They know that they have the ultimate security; they are being fed daily from the sky! They certainly have purpose, if they are willing to embrace it; they have been promised a purposeful and holy life as a nation dedicated to God if they follow God’s Torah.

Happy 4th of July, and soon, a Shabbat Shalom!

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