The pursuit of power and authority
In parashat Korach, we have yet another story about discontent in the wilderness. However, unlike the previous accounts of whining and kvetching, this week we read about a direct challenge to the authority of Moses and Aaron, God’s chosen leaders.
Of course, God makes it absolutely clear that Korach’s self-serving attack on Moses is unacceptable. The earth opens and swallows up Korach and the other ringleaders. And then another miracle occurs — the flowering of Aaron’s staff confirms Aaron’s leadership.
I found it amusing a few years ago that one of my colleagues wrote that as a teenager in the 1960s he regarded Korach as a hero. After all, he stood up to “the man” and demanded “power to the people.” But, of course, Korach was no populist hero. He was a demagogue and, like any good demagogue, he spoke in the name of “the people” in an attempt to disguise his own selfish agenda.
Korach confronts Moses and Aaron and says, “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.”
Rashi, following the Tanchuma, explains what Korah really meant. “All the community are holy” — they all heard the commandments at Sinai from the mouth of God. “Why then do you raise yourselves” — if you yourself [Moses] have taken the kingship, you should not have selected your brother for the priesthood.
Apparently, Korach isn’t concerned about “the people” — he wants to be Kohen Gadol (high priest) in Aaron’s place. In fact, one commentator suggests that he doesn’t actually want the job and all the work it requires. What he’s really after is the power and honor he believes Moses and Aaron enjoy.
Still, he insists, the entire community is holy. We all stood at Sinai and so we are all equal. No one has the right to exercise authority over anyone else.
This appeal to equality may sound good to us moderns, but God doesn’t buy it. And even more so, Korach himself doesn’t believe it — he’s just saying what he thinks will earn him support. How do we know? Korach’s own actions prove it.
The latter part of the parasha describes the gifts that the rest of the Israelites are to give to the Kohanim and Levi’im who would not receive a share of the land. The Kohanim were to receive a portion of most of the sacrifices, terumah (a share of all agricultural produce), and other gifts specified in the Torah. The Levi’im were to receive tithes of agricultural produce from which they were to give one-tenth to the Kohanim. Thus, they would be compensated for their service in the Temple on behalf of the people.
And so, if Korach were truly committed to the equality of all Israelites, the logical place for him to start would be to renounce his special privileges and responsibilities as a Levi. But he did no such thing.
And so Pirkei Avot tells us, do not be like Korach and his band.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.