Korach 5779 – What a Big Mistake!

By: James Rosenberg

Rabbi Lord Johathan Sacks says that “the Korach rebellion was the single most dangerous challenge to Moses’ leadership during the forty years that he led the people through the wilderness. The precise outline of events is difficult to follow, probably because the events themselves were tumultuous and disorderly. The narrative makes it clear that the rebels came from different groups, each of whom had different expectations, and reasons for resentment.”

And, the Chofetz Chaim teaches that “some people can become so entrenched in a dispute that they prefer to endure great suffering over ‘losing’ the argument.”

We live in an age that is afraid of compassion. During election season, our politicians compete with each other to demonstrate who is tougher, more hard-nosed, and less willing to make exceptions because of extenuating circumstances.

In race after race, politicians declare that they are more willing to sentence convicts to death, to stand tough against foreign enemies, and to battle assertively to get their way. In our personal lives as well, we admire firmness, decisiveness and strength. We reward those postures of power and firmness whenever we can. The last epithet a politician would want associated with his or her own name is “compassionate.” No one wants to be a wimp.

How striking, then, that ‘compassionate’ is one of the names Jewish tradition applies to the supreme leader, to God.

God of compassion and mercy — seems a remnant
of an earlier time: a kinder, gentler somewhere else.

Today’s Torah portion reveals Moses has a troubling experience in front of him. Faced with the most threatening rebellion of his entire leadership, we expect Moses to react the way most powerful men would respond toward an insubordination. We expect hardness, perhaps even ruthlessness, as Moses reasserts his control over a dangerous revolt.

We also know from elsewhere in the Torah, that Moses is a man of tremendous energy and force. This is certainly an instance where we might expect him to lash out. Instead, Moses expresses repeated concern for the rebels themselves. Rather than punishing them immediately, he engages in a series of maneuvers to postpone the inevitable clash, hoping all the while that Korach and his followers will back down.

Instead of calling upon God immediately, Moses first summons two of the leaders of the revolt, Datan and Aviram, hoping that their yielding to his leadership would demonstrate a willingness to renew their loyalty to Moses, and to God. When they refuse to come, Moses again postpones the public contest, saying only that – come morning, the Lord will make known who is going to continue to lead our people through the Dessert.

The Torah records that when first dealing with the rebels, Moses “fell upon his face.” Rashi understands this to mean that he was dismayed that they would yet again rebel against God. Three times, Moses intervenes with God to overlook the rebellions; but, now, at the rebellion of Korach, his thinking may well have been – how long can I impose upon God?  Perhaps he will no longer accept advocacy from me?

A Midrash of Rashi illustrates a powerful mode of leadership not often accepted by our contemporaries. Rather than lash out, Moses demonstrates sufficient confidence in his own leadership to try to re-establish a connection with his enemies. Rather than simply use force to impose his will, Moses makes the effort to persuade, to discuss, to negotiate.

In our own time, when men are praised for their ability to impose their will, to “get things done,” the compassionate efforts of Moses can encourage us to examine a higher level of interpersonal accommodation and understanding.

Power need not only be the ability to use force, or the might to impose will. Perhaps the ultimate power, as our Rabbis understood so well, was the ability to control our own inner drives, to hold them in check, and to occasionally rise above them.

In the world of international politics, no less than in the world of friendship, family and love, taking the time to discuss, to explain and to educate can produce results whose depth and degree can far surpass a begrudging acquiescence to force.

The Chofetz Chaim tells us that the dispute of Korach against Moses was the only one in history in which one side was totally in the wrong and one side was completely in the right. He said…

“I’m also struck by the language the Torah uses to describe Korach and his followers “assemble against” Moses and Aaron. This was not a friendly conversation, a heart-to-heart discussion about the direction the Israelites were taking in their wilderness wandering, or a question about leadership style and priorities. This was rebellion! “

Thus far, the story of Korach is intensely realistic and even similar to politics in today’s WORLD. A leader is able to mobilize a people by articulating a vision. But the journey from the real to the ideal, from starting point to destination, is fraught with setbacks and disappointments. This is when leaders are in danger of being deposed or Assassinated. As in today’s world and in Korach’s some 3,600 years ago, Korach is the symbol of a recurrent type – the coldly calculating man of ambition who fuels discontent against the status-quo, who thinks that only he can make the world a better place, and in reality – he really wants is to become a tyrant himself.

Korach and his people suffered a “measure for measure” punishment because they had accused Moses – “the most humble of all men” – of being arrogant and self-important. And, since Moses was at ground level, God felt that their punishment must be below that! And, at that point, the Earth opened its mouth, which had been created at the dawn of creation, and sucked down Korach and his men from the midst of the people.

The question might be asked, did Korach get his just reward? Are there similar situations in the World today???

I would be remiss if I did not share the names of the scholars who helped me in preparing today’s D’var Torah…

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Chofetz Chaim

Rabbi Bradley Artson


Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Shabbat Shalom, may it be peaceful, spiritual, and secure for all of us!