וַיִּֽקָּֽהֲלוּ עַל־מֹשֶׁה וְעַֽל־אַֽהֲרֹן וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב־לָכֶם כִּי כָל־הָֽעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָֹה וּמַדּוּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל־קְהַל יְהוָֹֽה
Vayik’halu al Moshe v’al Aharon vayomru aleihem: “Rav lakhem, ki khol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim u’v’tokham YHVH — u’madua titnas’u al k’hal YHVH?”
And [Korakh and his followers] gathered against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! Is not the entire community holy, and is not YHVH in their midst? Why do you raise yourselves up above the community?!” (Numbers 16:3).
Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument (Merriam-Webster).
Korakh assembles 250 Israelite leaders and publicly confronts Moses and Aaron: “Why do you merit to be the leaders?” Korakh’s argument sounds reasonable — did not YHVH speak to all of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai? Did they not all enter into covenant with YHVH at the mountain? Does not the Divine Presence dwell among all of them? Why then should the brothers Moses and Aaron have the power of Chief Judge and High Priest? How about a little more power-sharing here? And did not Moses himself recently exclaim, “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 13:29).
It sounds good, but the sages and Jewish tradition don’t buy it. Instead, the sages examine what can be learned about Korakh elsewhere in the Torah, and determine that his words are hollow and self-serving. They then read between the lines and midrashically paint Korakh as the embodiment of demagoguery, a phenomenon they clearly are deeply acquainted with (when it comes to human behavior, there is nothing new under the sun), and they hold Korakh up as the exemplar of this form of dangerous political leadership.
The commentators note that Korakh is not an ordinary citizen. He is Moses’ and Aaron’s first cousin. He is part of the priestly elite, and his role is to care for and transport the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects that furnish the Holy of Holies. Korakh is clearly among the most privileged Israelites. The midrash describes Korakh as exceedingly wealthy as well.
Just prior to the verse cited at the beginning of this essay, Parashat Korakh opens with an unusual wording: וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח Va’yikakh Korakh … — “And Korakh took … ” (16:1). Took what? Why does the Torah not say, “And Korakh arose” or “And Korakh gathered around himself … ” The midrash expands upon this strange opening and explains: Korakh took people in with words. His followers were taken in by Korakh’s rhetoric. Korakh, the rabbis assert, possesses the gift of gab. He knows how to inflame his followers’ grievances and reinforce their sense of entitlement. He distorts and selectively ignores the truth in order to win people over.
For example, the other named leaders that Korakh gathers around him have their own reasons to be aggrieved at their exclusion from the highest echelons. Datan, Aviram and On are all of the tribe of Reuben. If you will recall, Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn. Yet descendants of the tribe of Levi are in control. Doesn’t the Torah explicitly direct the inheritance to go to the firstborn son? Shouldn’t they be in charge?
But their emotion ignores history. Their patriarch Reuben long ago fell from grace after he slept with Bilhah, one of his father Jacob’s wives. Jacob stripped him of his firstborn privileges (see Genesis 49:3). Yet perhaps Korakh knew just what to say to appeal to the Reubenites’ humiliation, to promise them restored status and to get them to stand by his side.
Datan and Aviram themselves are good matches for Korakh when it comes to political theater and twisted rhetoric. When Moses suggests that they and Korakh meet with him to discuss their grievances, Datan and Aviram refuse and call a press conference (as it were), announcing, “We will not come! 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 16:12–13). Datan and Aviram have the temerity to refer to the Israelites’ former land of enslavement with the very same language that Moses promises for their future: a land flowing with milk and honey! Ah, claims the populist, remember the good old days … how good you all had it then?
The midrash further elaborates on Korakh’s casuistry (specious argument), creating passages in which he picks apart Moses’ instructions and laws, making them seem pointless and burdensome. He proclaims Moses’ choice of Aaron as High Priest to be pure nepotism, a brazen attempt to consolidate all the wealth of the priestly tithes in Moses’ own family. Korakh incites the people, commenting on how well-fed these leaders appear to be.
As always, the demagogue mines a kernel of truth, which is what gives his argument momentum. Moses does possess great authority; Aaron does receive the best cuts of meat. They are privileged. But Korakh also ignores the greater truth: Moses has never governed for his own enrichment. He carries the burden of leadership without fanfare, just as his brother Aaron carries the sins of the entire People on his shoulders when he seeks God’s forgiveness. Aaron and Moses serve a higher purpose and resist the aggrandizing temptations of power. But Korakh, despite his compelling rhetoric and his populist appeals, serves no one but himself.
Thus, Jewish tradition uses the contrast of Korakh and Moses as an object lesson in leadership, teaching us to be wary of self-serving leaders. In Pirkei Avot, The Teachings of the Sages, Korakh becomes immortalized as the example of the wrong path: “Any dispute that is in service of the common good will have enduring value. A dispute that is not in service of the common good has no lasting value. … And what is an example of a dispute that has no lasting value? The dispute of Korakh and his companions” (Pirkei Avot 5:17).
In our portion, we are rewarded with a satisfyingly fantastic and wish-fulfilling ending to Korakh’s rebellion: The earth opens its mouth and swallows him up along with his cohort. Problem solved, I suppose! But we don’t get to expect any miracles in our own political dramas. Rather, we have to remain vigilant against the Korakhs of our day. We must shun the fleeting satisfactions of self-righteous rage that cloud our own good judgment and hone our abilities to argue with reason, and to work with passion for the common good.