“Korah took… and Datan and Aviram – the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, of the children of Reuven. And they stood up before Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel- two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly… and they gathered themselves against Moshe and against Aharon…” (Bamidbar 16:1-2).
In this week’s parsha, we read of the formation of a protest group that brings together Korah and the descendants of Levi, with Datan and Aviram, as well as the children of Reuven. All of the parties complain about Moshe and Aharon and their leadership, but each of the disparate parties adopts a different line of protest.
The children of Reuven claim: “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness – that you also go so far as to lord yourself over us?!” By choosing this argument, the children of Reuven are making a false claim. The assertion that Egyptwas “a land flowing with milk and honey” for Bnei Yisrael is false; its purpose is to cover up and cause the people to forget the harsh reality of their Egyptian slavery, so as to incite the people against Moshe and Aharon and undermine their leadership.
The children of Levi, with Korah at the forefront, present a different claim: “…The entire assembly – they are all holy, and God is in their midst; why, then, do you hold yourselves superior to God’s congregation?” This would appear to be a serious ideological challenge. Korah calls for absolute equality, for recognition of the full and equal rights to which every individual of the nation is entitled. What is wrong with this argument? Are Korah and his company not inspiring human rights activists?
Korah is a demagogue: he seizes a genuine ideal and utilizes it for his own purposes. He adopts the important idea of equality and seeks to exploit it to further his own personal desire for power. In the name of his just cause, he actually tries to achieve a completely different objective: to uproot Moshe’s leadership and to create a situation in which he himself will be able to succeed him.
But we should not be too hasty in rejecting the ideal that Korah presents. His demagoguery conceals a kernel of truth: the entire assembly is indeed holy; every person is indeed endowed with the same measure of inherent sanctity that may be encouraged to emerge and flourish. There is truth in the claim that sometimes the leadership forgets its place and its obligation as the representative of the people. There is truth in the claim that views leaders as equal to their electorate; they are not a different, superior sort of people. The idea of fundamental equality between the public and the leader is a true and important one, and this is Korah’s real contribution. His sin, of course, lies in his own negative use of that great idea. We are left with the task of discarding the personal ambitions and narrow hunger for power from the inner pearl of truth and justice in his claim.