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Jewish Journal

Rebels and Leaders

Parshat Korah (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

by Rabbi Allen I. Freehling

July 3, 2003 | 8:00 pm

One of my favorite Torah portions is the one that we will read this Shabbat. It reveals to us myriad recognizable human traits while transmitting to us some vital lessons.

From this story, we see that some characteristics are bad while others are good; and, along the way, we observe the consequences of indifference.

Taking center stage -- but for a brief while -- is Korah, who along with his wrongheaded cohorts Dathan, Abiram and On, challenges God's authority and attempts to remove Moses from his preeminent leadership role by means of a massive rebellion. In the process, they almost cause the Israelites to be totally destroyed.

Korah forces us to examine the motives of those who are either appointed or elected officials. Furthermore, we're encouraged to probe the reasons why some people attempt to become self-appointed leaders.

With very clear-cut precision, the Torah posits Moses as the epitome of responsible leadership. He is -- above all else -- a visionary who is selfless, unconditionally dedicated to his task, and by now unquestionably accepting of the mandate thrust upon him by God.

Moses is even willing to tolerate the enduring foibles of those whom he is leading away from servitude and toward freedom, away from ignorance and toward knowledge and away from empty secularism and toward a fulfilling life rooted in sacredness.

In contrast, along comes Korah, who is full of self-importance and guile and who depends upon an alluring charisma to persuade his henchmen and every Israelite to follow his lead. Taking and then spinning the very words of God and Moses, who declare that the Israelites are a holy and priestly people, Korah proclaims that there is no reason why the Israelites ought to depend on Moses, who has established a theocratic rule over them.

Rather, he preaches that everyone should function within the context of a democracy in which he will voluntarily assume the mantle of leadership and take them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

While Korah is quick to condemn Moses as someone who has lifted himself above the community -- he makes no reference to God's part in this epoch adventure -- it is actually Korah who does the lifting so as to capture the people's favor in order to satisfy his own ego-driven need for absolute power over them.

And he almost gets away with it, because the Israelites are too gullible and so quick to rebel against Moses, who has been -- by necessity -- very demanding in his messages and relentless in his actions.

Meanwhile, what does Moses do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle? Instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting off Korah's challenge, Moses removes himself from the scene and opts for an overnight respite. Sleeplessly meditating on what has occurred, and praying to God for strength and guidance, Moses emotionally girds himself so he may effectively deal with Korah and those who support his rebellious cause at the dawn of a new day.

Soon thereafter, Moses and the Israelites witness the obliteration of this misguided, defiant competitor of God's will.

So, what are some of the lessons that emerge out of this text?

  • Reading about Korah's attempt to shove Moses aside, we see how a demagogue attempts to grasp the truth and then to twist it in an effort to promote his own cause. Therefore, it's essential that we always examine the motives of anyone who tells us that he possesses all of the answers to life's riddles, who urges us to stop wrestling with life's challenges and to put all of our trust in him and who suggests that it's not necessary that we safeguard our own integrity, since absolute reliance on him will get us to where we want (or need) to be.

  • Every demagogue's lust for power is so all-consuming that only bad things will occur if they have their own way. In contrast, Moses reveals to us the benefits that we may all derive when we place our confidence in authentic leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, and who are genuine public servants whose motives are ceaselessly selfless. It is these men and women who are constantly aware of God's lofty but accessible ethical standards, who are imbued with values that have been etched upon their hearts and minds beginning early in childhood and are taught by loved ones and mentors the dimensions and demands of responsible leadership, to whom we ought to turn for direction -- even when their demands on us seem to be so very burdensome.

  • This episode in the Torah is a dramatic reminder that we can ill afford to be indifferent. The Israelites stood idly by while Moses was forced to defend a harsh reality and Korah proffered a far more pleasing fantasy. The Israelites were willing to go along with Korah's plot just because he seemed to know an easy way out of their ordeal no matter what disasters might occur in the long run.

  • Following Moses' example, it's important that -- when facing hard choices -- we gain some perspective by stepping back from a perplexing problem, acquire some objectivity and seek spiritual and intellectual guidance from someone whom we can trust. Also, like Moses, we ought to meditate and pray as we concentrate on finding solutions and use time itself to be a balancing element.

Allen I. Freehling, rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue, is the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the city of Los Angeles.

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