Rabbi Walter Rothschild
As many of you know by now, I have a very different, very personal way of looking at biblical texts than do the traditional writers of Midrash. It is also important for me to teach and urge others to learn their own personal way as well. It is not enough to say just ”Rashi says…” or ”Rambam says” or ”the Midrash says”. One has to look at a text carefully and deeply and then feel confident enough – though never over-confident! – to add ”but I also think the following…”
The Sidra ‘Korach‘ describes a difficult, indeed defining moment in the history of the Israelites in the wilderness. The big question is: Who has the authority to lead, and Who gave them that authority? If I may add a ‘Spoiler Alert’ here, I can tell you that by the end of this episode it is clear that Moses has the authority and that God gave it to him! But this was perhaps not totally clear beforehand and although the traditional commentators make Korach out to be a bad man, a demagogue, selfish, power-hungry and worse – and indeed he was all these! – at the same time he had a point.
As always, Context is important. In the chapters before this, in the Book of Numbers chapters 13 -14, a lot of things have gone wrong, badly wrong. The people have lost their direction and their hope. First has been the incident with the Spies who returned from their mission with an overwhelmingly negative report. ”This land that Moshe is leading us to,” they say – or at least ten of the twelve say – ”Is impossible to conquer; It is heavily fortified and the soldiers there are enormous! We may as well give up now and turn round and go back!” What would this mean? Abandoning the whole exercise. Of course one can NOT go back to the previous situation and a moment’s thought should have made them realise this; they will not be able to cross over or through the Reed Sea again, or return to their previous status as slaves – Egypt is but a relic of what it once was, the army has been destroyed, the crops destroyed by hail and locusts, the domestic animals destroyed by plague and hail, the priesthood severely damaged and discredited – no, Going Backwards is not REALLY an option. It just seems like one. On the principle of ”Better the devil you know….”
So often in Politics we see a tendency to go backwards, not forwards. One feels that forwards lies the Unknown and Backwards the Known but actually – Backwards is just as Unknown now as Forwards, because the world has changed since one was back there….
Then God had become angry and God decided at first to kill the people where they are – in the desert. Moshe successfully manages to persuade God NOT to do this and instead of a Death Sentence they get a Life Sentence – they will not be killed by divine punishment but, nevertheless, they will have to stay where they are, going neither backwards nor forwards, until another generation has grown up, one prepared to take on the challenges, one not so affected by nostalgia, one that has grown up tough and free from a slave mentality. Which sounds very good in theory but leaves the 600,000-plus (they were counted at the beginning of the book) plus their families in rather a dark hole. What can they do, what should they do, what sort of God is this invisible, nameless, image-less Being whom Moshe always keeps quoting? Moshe, the man who turned up one day from nowhere and turned the entire Egyptian society and economy upside down? Who promised to free them but did not even share their language or their experiences? Did he not promise to lead them to a marvellous future and has he not now let them down drastically? They even try to talk to God direct, but God rejects their approach and their apology (Numbers 14:40-45) and instead they are defeated again by Amalekites and Canaanites.
And then – something horrible happens. A man is caught gathering firewood on a Sabbath day. (Num. 15:32-36). Not, you might think, a major sin. Admittedly Observance of the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and therefore has the same legal status as a prohibition on Murder or Adultery or Idolatry, but most of us would feel ”No-one else is hurt, so why make a fuss?” The people who come eagerly to Moshe dragging the unfortunate man however and denouncing him see it differently. Why? Are they perhaps still hoping to impress God and so persuade God to change His mind after all? Moshe also seems to be at a bit of a loss what to do. His leadership style consists so often of saying ”Stand right there, I’ll go and check with God!” and going alone into a tent to get some ruling.
The divine decision is: The man is to be executed!” ”Mot yumat”,You will surely ensure that he dies. (Clearly this execution is NOT classed as Murder). This is horrible in many ways. The poor chap gets no chance to apologise or repent, he gets no Defence Counsel, and rather than God killing him – something which God could clearly do – for example to send him a lightning bolt or a heart attack – God makes the People do the actual killing. The fact that they seem so willing to do it is also relevant. Bizarrely this comes just after a series of commands in 15:27-29 as to what someone who commits a sin through error should do, to make things right again!
At which point – Chapter 16:1 – something snaps for Korach. He has quite a few supporters, people who – in tribal leadership roles – perhaps feel also they should also have been consulted? Moshe has now ‘raised the stakes’ – rather than just talking about punishment for sin, rather than just threatening that God would punish Israelites for committing sins – now Moshe has taken on the role of God’s mouthpiece, insisting that a human life be taken away because of a sin. But why, how, from where does he have this authority? Why is he enabled to appoint his own tribe Levi as the priests and his own brother Aharon as the High Priest? Let us be honest, it does all look rather suspicious….
Korach’s words are well known. ”Rav lachem!” he says to Moshe and Aharon. ”You are getting too big for your own good – and for ours. Aren’t we ALL part of this holy people, aren’t we ALL entitled to be consulted?” The story is known and will be read from the Torah so I will not give it all here, but it is clear that God now sees that only direct divine intervention will work. Back in Exodus, at the time of the Golden Calf, Moshe could call upon some of the Israelites to attack and massacre others (Ex. 32:26-28) – but this will not work now. Something more dramatic, more melodramatic, more decisive and final is required. So Korach and his immediate followers are swallowed up alive, buried alive, and others are burned (16:32-35). Now it is clear: ”Do not mess about with God!” (There was an earlier event in Leviticus 24:10-23 in which a mixed-up, mixed-birth ‘Half-Israelite’ curses God during a fight and is also brought for execution; but maybe this is more understandable….).
There are so many messages one can take from this – all I can do is to point out that Korach – to my mind – was indeed entitled at least to query, to challenge. Moshe was already over 80 and showed no signs of wanting to retire! Leadership of a People is a complex and demanding issue. Later on there will be Joshua and then several Judges and then a Monarchy – the word ‘Monarchy’ means simply ‘Only ONE person rules’, it is the same effectively as Dictatorship, as a One-Party State. We know that many secular leaders have claimed divine authority for their being on the throne, have claimed to represent God. I, as a British citizen, even have a Queen who ex-officio heads the State Church! (I wonder what it is like to have to preach at Sandringham Church or the chapel at Windsor Palace when BOTH your bosses are present, God above and the Ruler below? Fortunately I am unlikely to have to find out.)
It sometimes feels as though Jewish communities are full of Korachs. They SAY ”We should all have a say” but what they mean is usually ”I alone should decide, not You!” And Europe is full of people who say ”We must turn backwards, we should avoid mixing with foreigners, we should keep our boundaries clear and well-protected.” In what used to be the ‘United’ Kingdom they SAY ”We should not let Brussels rule Britain! We should have local rights!” but what they mean is ”London should rule Britain! Who cares what the locals think in other parts of the country?” So far God has not sent any direct punishments, but maybe one day the entire island might sink into the sea……. like Korach into the earth.
The BIG problem for all of us is trying to work out which of our leaders is a Moshe and which is a Korach. Neither, of course, are perfect, and even Moshe ends up being punished for disobedience and weakness; He is told he must hand over authority to Jehoshua, that he will not enter the Promised Land – and he takes a long time coming to terms with this. But it seems Korach wants to be Moshe, whereas Moshe does not wish to be Korach. Many a secular ruler, and also many a communal ruler, seeks power without responsibility, authority without consideration for others, status without knowledge or experience, influence without commitment. Many claim – with no evidence! – to have God on their side. The story in this sidra is considered to be a warning against arrogance and against demanding power. But Somebody has to lead, or else there will be anarchy; and it is precisely in the difficult times, when the future seems unclear, when aims need to be changed, when morale needs to be maintained, that one will see who has the leadership qualities that are so desperately needed.