Parashat Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32
The tug of war over the priesthood is just the most obvious problem in Parashat Korach.
Next Tuesday is a significant anniversary. In Canada we will be celebrating Canada Day marking the establishment of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. While this will be celebrated with barbecues and fireworks, most Canadians are unaware that July 1st is also the anniversary of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, one of the significant battles of World War I. The horror of trench warfare was recorded by the poet John Edward Masefield the following year:
For a moment, they saw the parapet with the wire in front of it, and began, as they ran, to pick out in their minds a path through that wire. Then, too often, to many of them, the grass that they were crossing flew up in shards and sods and gleams of fire from the enemy shells, and those runners never reached the wire, but saw, perhaps, a flash, and the earth rushing nearer, and grasses against the sky, and then saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever.John Edward Masefield, The Old Front Line
The first day of fighting resulted in 58,000 casualties, one-third of whom "saw nothing more at all, for ever and for ever and for ever." This still remains the largest number of British casualties in a single day. Though this battle was eventually declared a strategic success, it remains controversial.
At the center of the debate stands Sir Douglas Haig, a cavalry man. He didn't think much of newfangled machinery like the tank, or that "overrated weapon," the machine gun. Ninety-two years later, we can still ponder what these views say about his leadership and that of his superiors.
This Shabbat we read about Korach, a Levite who was a cousin of Moses and Aaron. Despite the family ties, or perhaps because of them, Korach took exception with his cousins' leadership. Joined by Dathan, Abiram and 250 elders, they challenged the established leadership: You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation? (Numbers 16:3) Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? (Numbers 16:13)
What follows the challenge of these rebels is a test of leadership, in which the Divine clearly supports Moses, and, even more dramatically, affirms Aaron's role.
The tug of war over the priesthood is just the most obvious problem in Parashat Korach. The rebellion and its aftermath provide a glimpse of leadership in transition and the upheaval caused by the change to something new:
Texts that focus on the priesthood shift authority away from the family’s head toward the central sanctuary and its priests. … The inclusion of the wives of Dathan and Abiram reflects the role that women played within the clan system
Thus, Numbers 16 is not only a story of infighting among families that ultimately champions Aaron and his descendants; it also tells a story about the seeming demise of an important notion of the "biblical family." The deaths of Dathan, Abiram, and their wives at the entrances to their tents (16:27) make the point painfully clear: after all, the entrance to the tent is a place associated with theophany and judgment in the clan system and, hence, also a symbol of authority (Genesis 18:1; Deuteronomy 22:21). Together, Dathan, Abiram and their wives represent the clan system that must be erased—swallowed whole—in order to establish the authority of the priesthood.Amy Kalmanofsky, The Torah: A Woman's Commentary,
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L Weiss, ed., p. 909
Korach and the rebels were the biblical equivalents of World War I generals using old strategies. With everything that had happened up to this point, wasn't it clear that Moses and Aaron were the leaders and that the priesthood was God's chosen method? What further proof did Korach, Datan and Abiram need? Apparently, something overwhelmingly tragic was the only thing that would provide a wake-up call, something that, unfortunately, took many innocent lives as well: the ancient equivalent of the trenches of the First World War. It is only after the rebels and their families were swallowed by the earth that the priestly leadership is dramatically upheld:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and take from them — from the chieftains of their ancestral houses — one staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house: twelve staffs in all. Inscribe each man's name on his staff, there being one staff for each head of an ancestral house; also inscribe Aaron's name on the staff of Levi. Deposit them in the Tent of Meeting before the Pact, where I meet with you. The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout, and I will rid Myself of the incessant mutterings of the Israelites against you. Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. Their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house, twelve staffs in all; among these staffs was that of Aaron. Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord, in the Tent of the Pact. The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds. Moses then brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the Israelites; each identified and recovered his staff. The Lord said to Moses, "Put Aaron's staff back before the Pact, to be kept as a lesson to the rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die." This Moses did; just as the Lord had commanded him, so he did.Numbers 17:16-26
Without a doubt, parashat Korach is a lesson in leadership. Tradition tells us that in saying all the people are holy Korach spoke the truth, but not the whole truth. Korach wanted to lead but for his own reasons. He was selfishly focused on personal needs and desires. So too were the other rebels; and they were rejected because of their motives. Certainly enough has been written about the World War I generals who were so caught up in themselves, so confident that they knew best, fighting the last war while blind to the evidence before them. Clearly, these leaders were all too human, with flaws that proved fatal to others.
Yet a good leader, a true leader is by no means a saint. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, the prophets and the kings were all flawed individuals. It is because they were so human that we can look up to them. The model for us may be of an extremely high standard, but it is not beyond our reach. A true leader does not act for personal gain but rather for the greater good as clearly demonstrated by both Aaron and Moses in this episode. A true leader says things that are difficult to hear, but which must be heard. All too often, a true leader is never fully appreciated or rewarded in his lifetime.
Tradition tells us that the days of the prophets are long gone, as are the days of the priests. The question is, do we still have true leaders? We live in a time with no Moses, Aaron or Miriam, yet Korach's rebellion endures in our days. People who have great leadership potential face tremendous obstacles.
In large measure, this is our own fault. The single most important lesson we can learn from Korach is how to judge true leadership. It is the individual who sees beyond the self, who tells us what we need to do instead of what makes us comfortable, and who empowers others to fulfill their potential. We know such people exist. Our greatest challenge is not finding such individuals; it is recognizing them and allowing them to fulfill their potential.
There is an additional lesson we can learn about leadership, be it in the workplace, in our personal lives, or in the greater community. When faced with leaders who give us cold, hard, uncomfortable truths, leaders who struggle to transform us, we tend to turn against them. Far too often we are Korach.