“To exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limits that it discovers in itself – limits where minds meet, and in meeting, begin to exist.” Albert Camus
There is a near unanimous view in the Talmud and among later Torah commentators that Korah’s intentions were disingenuous; his sole aim was a power grab. The motive of his 250 followers, replaced Reubenite first-borns or overlooked Levites, was not equal opportunity, but a resentment-fuelled attempt to undermine Moshe’s leadership.
Ramban asserts that the story of Korah, the subject of this week’s Sedra, occurred chronologically when morale (and Moshe’s opinion polls) might have been at an all-time low. What future was there for young 20-something males, beyond wondering in the desert for 40 years until they died? Lack of opportunity often leads to social unrest.
Seforno suggests that Korah’s followers infiltrated those awaiting an audience with Moshe, sowing seeds of dissent (like social media trolls), so that when the confrontation occurred, an already hostile crowd would instantly side with Korah.
Rashi, famously quoting Midrash Tanhuma, explained the challenges Korah put to Moshe: ‘Would a Talit dyed entirely in Tahelet (blue dye) require Tahelet strings? Would a house full of holy books require a mezuzah?’ Since these objects fully embodied the mitzvah, was Halakha necessary? Korah was a disruptive law unto himself.
Pirkei Avot states: ‘An example of an argument not for the sake of heaven was Korah and his Assembly’. Rabbi Akiva in TB Sanhedrin went further to suggest that Korah lost his share in the World to Come. Rabbi Eliezer countered that Korah was eventually rehabilitated. Proof came when ‘the earth opened to swallow them’, his children were miraculously rescued, and several generations later, Korah’s most famous descendant was the prophet Samuel.
Another prominent Talmudic tale is about an Arab guide taking wayfarers to a crevice in the desert where could be heard voices from below proclaiming: “Moshe’s Torah is true, and we are liars!” The Midrash further embellishes the back story by casting Korah as a man with wealth beyond the imagination. Interestingly, this view resurfaces in the Quran, where ‘Qarun’ (Korah) is an example of a tyrant, epitomized by wealth-based arrogance.
And yet, despite his fabulous riches, Korah aspired to the priesthood. Was it narcissism that drove him to a premature demise, or was there something more? And, if we look for leadership role models from our scriptures, is Moshe’s response an example we should emulate today?
Korah may be the first populist Jewish leader manufacturing fake news, enlisting the vox populi to propel himself into power. But was Moshe’s response just a more lethal form of cancel culture? When facing dissent, how do we get back to dialogue? In an ever-more fractured world, how do we recover from polarisation and extremism? It is easy to label someone with whom we disagree a rebel. It is harder to have a conversation with them. But the Torah offers limited airtime to power-hungry demagogues. And, so, it seems, should we.
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