Parashat Korach

June 2010

“The Korach Award Goes to…”

In this week’s sedra, Korach, who is a cousin of Moses, leads a rebellion against him and against Aaron. He carefully builds a coalition of malcontents, which includes members of the tribe of Reuben, and two hundred and fifty chieftains of the community. And then he fires up the mob by making terrible accusations against Moses and Aaron. He says:  “Moses and Aaron, you  have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?”

What is Moses’ reaction to this accusation?  What would we say, what would we do, if we were in leadership and were in his place? Moses had gone back into Egypt from Midian, where he was safe, in order to rescue his people. He stood face to face with Pharaoh, and risked his life for them; he had led them through the wilderness, provided food and water for them, cared for them with no thought of reward and now Korach accuses him of having delusions of grandeur, and of seeking to gain status over them?  Wouldn’t you be angry if you were Moses?

And yet, what does Moses do?

He falls on his face and prays to God for help. He prays, says one of the Sages, in order to make sure that there is not a crumb of truth in this accusation. And then he leaves it to God to decide whether he or Korach is in the right. He tries to reason with Korach. He tries to explain to him that he already has much honor. He asks Korach and his cohorts to reason with  him that they can resolve this matter. But Korach and his followers say: “We will not come up! Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey in order to have us die in the wilderness, that you should also lord it over us?”

We read those words and are incredulous.  “A land flowing with milk and honey” is the phrase that God uses to describe the land of Israel. And now, these demagogues use this very phrase to describe the land of Egypt! They accuse Moses and Aaron of daring to take them out of the land of Egypt where they had it so good.  We see the chutzpa of what they say.

And yet Moses grits his teeth and does not reply in kind. Instead, he leaves it for God to decide whether there is any truth in what they say.  And for this, we are impressed. Could we, could I hear such an insult, and keep our self-control? Moses deserves to be admired for his self-control in time of stress. He would win an Award named for him, “the Moshe Rabbenu Award”

But what for the rest, not only the followers of Korah , but the “innocent” others? What of those who countenanced their actions by silence or by avoiding the issue entirely for fear it would portend badly on their reputation. After all, democracy often invites apathy or fear of confrontation as much as it does differences of opinion and acation.

Our sages teach in a question that is itself an answer. They write “shall I remain silent, when I should speak forth?”  They teach “am I my brother’s keeper?” They caution “if I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I?

Do we  today acquiesce bad behaviors for fear of what others may say or do, after they have already said and done whatever it is we fear, or even when it has not happened? Are we taking a higher ground by chilling our otherwise thoughtful responses for fear of bad public relations? Do we deserve the Korach Award?

Our tradition is clear on point. It is rigorous in response to this failure to act, almost as much as it demands a response to the Korachs of any generation. It makes us all equally culpable, even the silent ones for having the opportunity to act and failing to do so. We are admonished to address such behaviors lest we, ourselves, be guilty—almost by association.

During the High Holy Days we repeat the Ashamnu litany of sins, many of which we have not committed individually, but for which we all are accountable within our community. We are accountable as stewards one for the other in order to foster harmony, check errant behaviors and keep our community healthy.

If we fail to confront  our Korachs with appropriate calm and reflection, offer opportunity for reason and admonish a change, then we might not only deserve the Korach Award, but we present it to ourselves.

Who would want to remain in leadership with such a distinction?

Shabbat Shalom