Shamaya says: Love work, hate positions of power, and do not try to become close with the authorities (Pirkei Avot 1:10)


The story of the spies and the story of Korach are all one episode. Korach was only able to do what he did in the wake of the incident of the spies. The people were in a state of despair. Ten of the twelve spies came back with a negative report, and the people’s hope of coming to a “land flowing with milk and honey” was dashed. The people wished that they had stayed in Egypt. They simply lamented their situation, and saw no way out. The conditions were ripe for a demagogue to seize power. Korach fed on their despair, and harnessed it to elevate himself.


His methods of seizing power involved: 1) seducing the people with words of hope and praise, 2) attacking the existing leadership, and 3) establishing a new “Korach culture” that involved clothes to signal membership in his camp.


The first part is reflected both in the parashah itself and in the Midrash. Korach says to Moshe “All the congregation are holy (16:3).” According to the Midrash Tanchuma (Siman 2), the word vayikach (“he took”) used in the first verse of the parashah means that he seduced them with soft, mollifying language. The second part is made explicit when he says, in the same verse, “Why should you rule over God’s people?” and when Datan and Aviram accuse Moshe of not having brought them to a land of milk and honey (16:13). The third part appears in Midrash Tanchuma, which tells us that Korach claimed that a talit made entire of the blue t’chelet thread did not require tzitzit, and so he had his followers make such talitot for themselves.


What characterizes his followers, besides their despair, is their ignoring the plain facts before them. In the Biblical narrative, God acts plainly and openly. The spies were killed in a plague. Korach and his cadre were swallowed by the earth in a clearly Divine act. The people were led by pillars of cloud and fire. When Moshe spoke, it was clear that he was relying on observable facts. The people who were seduced by Korach were so intent on having their despair turned into outrage. This gave them a renewed sense of mission, albeit not one based on honest and thorough evaluation of their situation, or trust in God. They also had a new banner to rally behind, a new “tribe” to be part of, signified by the all-blue talit.


Moshe’s leadership differed from Korach’s in two significant ways. One was that he never sought power for himself. He took on his position reluctantly when commanded by God. The other is that once he was in a position of leadership, he never saw people who disagreed with him as the enemy. In fact, he prayed passionately that Korach’s followers be saved from Divine wrath. “God of all living spirit of living flesh, would You pour out Your wrath on all the people when one man sins? (16:22)”  Moshe’s authority did not depend on casting others as enemies, even when they followed Korach. Moshe understood that the people Israel were his charge and his responsibility, not a chance for his own self-aggrandizement. The leader that the Torah idealizes is the person who was “more humble than anyone on the face of the earth. (12:3)”


Shabbat Shalom!

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