Swallowed Up By Bad Leaders


After Miriam and Aaron complain about their brother they are told definitively that Moses’ humble leadership is what God wants; Moses is “the trusted one in all My house” [Numbers 12:7-8].

Even after God’s decisive statement, that Moses is the one with whom He communicates most clearly, another family member — first cousin Korach — challenges Moses’ leadership. Just as Miriam and Aaron complained that they, too, spoke with God, and were also prophets, Korach complains to Moses, “You take too much upon yourself, seeing [that] all the congregation are holy, every one of them… the Lord is among them” [Num. 16:3]. On the face of it, Korach’s claim seems reasonable. Every human is created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27].

However, just because all humans are potentially holy does not mean they are all the same. The problem with Korach’s logic is that he believes he knows better than God. Hasn’t God already clearly stated in response to an earlier challenge that Moses is a different kind of prophet and leader, beyond others? Why would Korach bother with this argument if he had been listening to what his cousins Miriam and Aaron were already told?

The problem with Korach’s logic is that he is putting forth his claim not to achieve holiness or any kind of positive purpose but because Korach wants what Moses has: Korach wants power, to be in control, not because he has a plan for how to make use of that power, or for how he could better channel God’s words to achieve holiness.

Moses had challenges before. In one of his first confrontations with injustice, Moses sees two Hebrew slaves fighting [Exodus 2:13]. Moses asks, “Why do you smite your fellow?” The response he gets is, “Who made you a prince [“sar” in Hebrew] and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” [Exodus 2:14]. Though one might think that the slaves would be pleased to have an avenger in the person of Moses, clearly this speaker does not welcome him. Moses flees to Midian.

The same language is used by Korach’s followers, Datan and Aviram, when they are summoned to a test with censers and a fire. They refuse and tell Moses, “you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert because you have surely made yourself a prince [“tistarer,” a reflexive verb from the Hebrew root “sar” ] over us” [Num. 16:13]. In both cases, the person calling Moses a “prince” is doing so to denigrate Moses and mock him.

The danger of Korach’s challenge is his claim is that he knows what is religiously appropriate — “kulam kedoshim” (“we are all holy”). Yet nothing in his behavior demonstrates a commitment to holiness or a connection to God. Korach is a demagogue, doing whatever is necessary to whip his followers into a frenzy so that they will follow him, giving him power.

The key difference between Korach and Moses is humility. In responding to the objections of Miriam and Aaron, God tells them why Moses is so special. Partly, it is that God speaks to Moses “mouth to mouth” [Num. 12:8] and “face to face” [Deuteronomy 34:10]. Partly, it is Moses’ humility, the “most humble man more than any on the face of the earth” [Num. 12:3].  Superlatives here are used to exalt humility, not any other virtue.

God’s glory [Num. 16:19] appears to the Assembly. Moses tells the people that he will display how it is God doing great things, not him [Num. 16:28]. Moses does not seek credit for what he does, since he is only God’s vehicle. Korach’s followers, on the other hand, though they have been told to separate from the tents of the evil men [Num. 16:26] fail to do so, following Korach’s leadership only to be literally swallowed by the earth [Num. 26:33] in a “new creation created by God” [Num. 16:30].

There is another word for this “new creation” — a miracle; an event not explained by the normal functioning of the laws of nature. Bible scholar Yair Zakovitch, exploring the concept of biblical miracles, explains that even when something can be understood as the normal workings of the earth, such as an earthquake in this case, what makes it miraculous is that it happened at the moment when biblical characters needed it to, in consonance with what would help them accomplish their goals. The fact that the earth opens when Moses asks it to constitutes a miracle.

The challenge of Korach teaches us that we need leaders with humility, who believe a higher power guides them, who know that they can’t possibly have all the answers for they are not in the place of God. Anyone acting like Korach, trying to gain power purely for its own sake and lacking all humility and awareness of his or her limits, should be viewed with appropriate skepticism.

We shouldn’t need the earth to open yet again to swallow those who follow prideful leaders rather than humble ones.

Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel “Questioning Return,” editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis” and is at work on a book about coping with trauma in her Pittsburgh Jewish community.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 8:12 p.m.

Torah: Num. 16:1-18:32

Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22

Havdalah: 9:12 p.m.