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Korach: Demagogue

Dear Friends,

I composed this piece a year ago, highlighting Judaism’s insistent and insightful understanding of the dangers of demagoguery. A year later, sadly, tragically, dangerously, the demagogue who was then a presidential candidate is now our president. Therefore I am sharing these teachings with you again today. My thanks to my colleague Rabbi Lewis Eron for his insights into this Torah portion.

Shabbat Shalom and love,

Rabbi Jonathan

 

Vayikhalu al Moshe v’Aharon vayomru aleihem: “Rav lachem, ki chol ha’edah kulam kedoshim u’v’tocham YHVH – u’madua titnas’u al k’hal YHVH?”

And [Korach and his followers] gathered against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! Is not the entire community holy, and is not YHVH in their midst? Why do you raise yourselves up above the community?!” (Numbers 16:3)

Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. (Merriam-Webster)

Korach assembles 250 Israelite leaders and publicly confronts Moses and Aaron: “Why do you merit to be the leaders?” Korach’s argument sounds reasonable – did not YHVH speak to all of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai? Did they not all enter into covenant with YHVH at the mountain? Does not the Divine Presence dwell amongst them all? Why then should the brothers Moses and Aaron have the power of Chief Judge and High Priest? How about a little more power-sharing here? And did not Moses himself recently exclaim, “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets!” (Num. 13:29)

It sounds good, but the Sages and Jewish tradition don’t buy it. Instead, the Sages examine what can be learned about Korach elsewhere in the Torah, and determine that his words are hollow and self-serving. They then read between the lines and midrashically paint Korach as the embodiment of demagoguery, a phenomenon they clearly are deeply acquainted with, (when it comes to human behavior, there is nothing new under the sun), and they hold Korach up as the example of the political leader not to follow.

The Sages note that Korach is not an ordinary citizen. He is Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. He is part of the priestly elite, and his role is to care for and transport the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects that furnish the Holy of Holies. Korach is clearly among the most privileged of the Israelites. The midrash describes Korach as exceedingly wealthy, as well. (Even today, the Hebrew and Yiddish expression “as rich as Korach” describes an extremely affluent individual.) The midrash explains that Korach did not earn his wealth. He either came upon it by luck or by dishonorable means. By some accounts Korach expropriated part of the treasure that Joseph hid for Pharaoh. Other stories relate that as a Hebrew slave, he was Pharaoh’s treasurer and placed a good portion of the royal riches into his own purse. Yet Korach’s wealth did not prompt him to do good deeds but only fed his sense of self-importance.

Parshat Korach opens with an unusual wording: Vayikach Korach… – “And Korah took…” (16:1). Took what? Why does the Torah not say “And Korach arose”, or “And Korach gathered around himself…” The midrash expands upon this strange opening and explains: Korach took people with words. His followers were taken in by Korach’s rhetoric. Korach, the rabbis assert, possesses the gift of gab. He knows how to inflame his followers’ grievances and reinforce their sense of entitlement. He distorts and selectively ignores the truth in order to win people over.

For example, the other named leaders that Korach gathers around him have their own reasons to be aggrieved at their exclusion from the highest echelons. Dathan, Aviram and On are all of the tribe of Reuben. If you will recall, Reuben was Jacob’s first-born. Yet descendants of the tribe of Levi are in control. Doesn’t the Torah explicitly direct the inheritance to go to the first-born son? Shouldn’t they be in charge?

But their emotion ignores history. Their patriarch Reuben long ago fell from grace, after he slept with Bilhah, one of his father Jacob’s wives. Jacob stripped him of his first-born privileges (see Genesis 49:3). Yet Korach knew just what to say to appeal to the Reubenites’ humiliation, to promise them restored status, and to get them to stand by his side.

Korach finds good company with the leaders of the Reubenites. Dathan and Aviram are also masterful at manipulating appearances and at twisting language. When Moses asks to meet with Dathan and Aviram they publicly refuse to meet with him, and hold a “press conference” instead, announcing: “We will not meet with that man. Is it not enough that he brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die here in this wilderness, and now he wants to lord it over us?… We will no longer be hoodwinked by this man! We refuse to meet with him!” (Numbers 16:13-14)

Note Dathan and Aviram’s breathtaking gall: They take the very words of hope that Moses shared with the slaves in Egypt, that if they would leave bondage God would lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and use that image to conjure the good old days of slavery! (Happy slaves singing on the plantation, anyone?)

The midrash elaborates on Korach’s clever casuistry (specious argument), creating passages in which he picks apart and mock’s the Torah’s instructions and laws, making them seem pointless and burdensome. Korach paints Moses as a tyrant whose rule is more onerous than Pharaoh’s. He even slanders Moses, claiming that Moses behaved immorally and warning women to stay away from him! He proclaims Moses’ choice of Aaron as High Priest to be pure nepotism, a brazen attempt to consolidate all the wealth of the priestly tithes into Moses’ own family. Korach incites the people, commenting on how well fed these leaders appear to be. He even spins a tale about a poor widow who was forced to give up her only means of livelihood – a single sheep – because of the onerous taxes and regulations that she is forced to follow by Moses and Aaron. Today we call these kinds of stories “fake news”.

But as always, skillful demagogues mine kernels of truth, which is what gives their arguments momentum. Dathan and Aviram play on the fact that Egypt was more fertile than this wilderness through which the Children of Israel now journey: where’s that land of milk and honey you promised us?! Korach also strikes a chord of truth: Moses does possess great authority; Aaron does receive the best cuts of meat. They are privileged. But Korach and his followers also ignore the greater truth: Moses has never governed for his own enrichment. He carries the burden of leadership without fanfare, just as his brother Aaron carries the sins of the entire People on his shoulders when he seeks God’s forgiveness. Aaron and Moses serve a higher purpose, and resist the aggrandizing temptations of power. But Korach, despite his compelling rhetoric and his populist appeals, serves no one but himself.

Thus Jewish tradition uses the contrast of Korach and Moses as an object lesson in leadership, teaching us to be wary of self-serving leaders. In Pirkei Avot, The Teachings of the Sages, Korach becomes immortalized as the example of the wrong path: “Any dispute that is in service of the common good will have enduring value. A dispute that is not in service of the common good has no lasting value… And what is an example of a dispute that has no lasting value? The dispute of Korach and his companions.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

In our portion, we are rewarded with a satisfyingly fantastic and wish-fulfilling ending to Korach’s rebellion: the earth opens its mouth and swallows him up along with his cohort. Problem solved, I suppose! But we don’t get to expect any miracles in our own political dramas. Rather, we have to remain vigilant against the Korachs of our day. We must shun the fleeting satisfactions of self-righteous rage that cloud our own good judgment, and hone our abilities to argue with reason, to stand up to falsehoods, and to work with passion for the common good.