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Jewish Journal

Questioning Authority

Parashat Korach (Numbers 16-18)


by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb

July 6, 2000 | 8:00 pm

All of us question authority at times. We do it for any number of reasons. Sometimes our ego motivates us. Sometimes the motivation stems out of a true desire to bring about a needed change. Whatever the reason, and no matter the era, authority is constantly being challenged, leadership questioned. This week's Torah portion, Korach, highlights an unprecedented yet serious challenge to the Israelite leadership. It begins with a handful of dissenters, rapidly escalating into a substantial rebellion. Led by Korach and two others, Datan and Abiram, Moses' authority as God's chosen leader is suddenly at stake.

In a remark that so neatly fits the mindset of the Israelites, Korach and his supporters announce to Moses, and for all to hear: "Is it not enough that you took us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness?" (Num. 16:13) That the Israelites would romanticize their past in Egypt is understandable. As horrid as the conditions were, they were predictable and constant. Traveling through the desert was uncertain and frightening.

But that a self-proclaimed leader would falsely recreate his people's history likening their living conditions in Egypt to a land "flowing with milk and honey," does nothing more than reveal his true intentions: love of power and the fulfillment of his own selfish goals. Is it no wonder the rabbis of the Talmud wrote: "Every gathering whose purpose is to serve God will in the end be established; but every gathering whose purpose is not for God's sake, in the end will not be established." (Pirkei Avot 4:14) Significantly, Korach's efforts to topple Moses failed.

Throughout the Torah, the Israelites complained to Moses, constantly voicing a desire to return to Egypt. Even after having witnessed the most incredible miracles imagined, they expressed a desire to return to the wretched life they had as slaves. To his credit, Korach knew his audience; he understood their vulnerabilities. He told them what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear.

Korach told them that a life of slavery was better than a life of freedom. Essentially, he told them that life under Pharaoh's rule was preferable to life under God's rule. He validated their parochial beliefs, further building onto the slave mentality that was driven into their souls, the culmination of hundreds of years of repression and subservience.

Psychologically, Korach understood it was easier to destroy something or, in the case of Moses' leadership and reputation, to destroy someone, than it was to build and improve on it. He knew that the verbal attack he leveled against Moses, no matter the intensity, gave him leverage. Verbally, he could discredit Moses with a few damaging accusations, while Moses would require paragraphs of explanation to defend his good name and record. Korach knew it was easier to complain and point out weaknesses in Moses' leadership than it was to focus on the immeasurable good Moses achieved throughout his life.

No one would doubt there are appropriate times to question authority, times for a legitimate change in leadership to occur. But on a spiritual level, perhaps Moses' entanglement with Korach teaches us that leadership is not limited to an elite handful. When developed, leadership can be found in all walks of life. It can be found in one's home, at one's place of work. It can be found every time a person struggles to do what is right. Legitimate, responsible leadership is found every time a necessary word is spoken, every time pain is removed from the world.

So let the story of Korach's failed rebellion serve as a lesson to us all. Next time you complain and challenge authority, ask yourself what the motive behind doing so truly is. Ask yourself how you can further improve your own leadership skills in order to better elevate all aspects of your personal behavior. Ask yourself if you are motivated by a desire to build or to topple, to serve God or to serve yourself. Finally, ask yourself if your style of leadership is more akin to Korach or to Moses.

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