The central theme of this week’s Parsha, is the rebellion led by Korach against the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu, and the repercussions of this failed rebellion. The fact that Korach and his followers were motivated not by the altruistic motives that they presented, but rather by jealousy and petty ambition, is clearly demonstrated by Chazal in the Mishna in Avot (5:17)
“Any dispute (machloket) which is for the sake of heaven (l’shaim shamayim), will endure, while any dispute which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure. What (is an example) of a dispute which is for the sake of heaven? The dispute(s) of Shammai and Hillel. And (what is an example) of a dispute which is not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and his followers.”
We should be troubled by the asymmetry in this statement. While the reference to Shammai and Hillel is understandable, the reference to Korach and his followers is unclear. After all, Shammai and Hillel were protaganists, hence we find them as opposing numbers in a dispute which is for the sake of heaven. But Korach and his followers were on the same side. Would it not have been more appropriate for the mishna to have referred to the machloket between Korach on one side and Moshe and Aharon on the other?
The Malbim sees in this very asymmetry the litmus test for a machloket l’shaim shamayim. When a dispute is truly l’shaim shamayim, for the sake of heaven, the protaganists are on opposite sides of a question, not of each other. The quest is one for truth (emet) and an open, no holds barred discussion is the only way to establish the truth. A machloket that is not for the sake of heaven presents an entirely different situation. The quest is not for truth but for whatever has motivated those who initiated the argument, even if the motivations are disparate and at times contradict one another. This is the case with Korach and his followers. Each group has a separate agenda. Korach is angling for the position of Kohen Hagadol, the Leviim wish to attain the status of Kohanim and Datan and Aviram represent the tribe of Reuven, which has seen its birthright usurped by none other than their co-conspirators, the Leviim. It is no wonder that within this group there are tensions and fissures. The technical dispute might be with Moshe Rabbenu, but the real action is within the rebels. This is a group united only by their resentment of perceived slights meted out by what they view as a corrupt leadership, and ready to go for each others throats the moment that the immediate goal of a change in leadership is achieved.
The scenario suggested by the Malbim, of disparate forces joining against a common foe, only to fall out amid conflicting agendas, is as old as the hills and as fresh as today’s news. This sense of familiarity is strengthened by a striking observation made by the Ramban. Commenting on the timing of the rebellion, the Ramban points out that Korach has clearly been biding his time. After all, Korach’s complaint that he was bypassed both for the position of Kohen Gadol as well as for the leadership of Shevet Levi is old news. Why does he choose the aftermath of Chet HaMeraglim to make his move?
Korach knew that his rebellion stood no chance of succeeding as long as Moshe was popular. The sin of the spies, with its consequent punishment for all of Am Yisrael, provides Korach with the chance he has been waiting for. Bnei Yisrael is in turmoil. Their defeat at the hands of the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael is barely behind them while the prospect of forty years in the desert looms ahead of them. Moshe has, in a very tangible sense, failed as their leader. Would not a rebellion, challenging Moshe’s already compromised leadership as corrupt and nepotistic, succeed?
At this point, we should examine Moshe Rabbenu’s response to this challenge. In order to do so, we must understand the critical passuk (16:4), “And Moshe heard, and he fell on his face”. Two questions leap out at us, one textual, the other conceptual. Firstly, why does the Torah bother to tell us that Moshe heard? Isn’t this obvious? Secondly, why does Moshe fall on his face? Certainly in the context of our analysis above, this is hardly going to inspire confidence in his leadership!
While many commentators deal with one or both of these questions (see Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban and Chizkuni for starters), let’s focus on the approach suggested by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch.
Rav Hirsch understands the word “VaYishma Moshe” (and Moshe heard) as meaning that Moshe understood. What was it that Moshe understood? He understood what Korach was really accusing him of. Korach’s claim was that Moshe’s leadership was not a result of Divine command but rather a simple power grab (see passuk 3, especially “u’madua titnasu al kehal Hashem”). To make such a claim, says Rav Hirsch, is to demonstrate a total lack of understanding as to what a Jewish leader is.
Korach’s basic claim was that all of the Jewish people, having witnessed Maamad Har Sinai and having received the Torah, are holy. Therefore, Moshe was no better than any other member of Klal Yisrael. But Korach missed the point. Bnei Yisrael was not yet holy; rather, they had the potential to attain holiness. The entire existence of the Mishkan, with its clearly delineated areas limiting entry to the various castes of Am Yisrael, serves as a constant reminder of the gap between the potential for holiness and what has actually been attained. To confuse between the two is to invite the punishment for someone who enters the Mishkan improperly, “v’hazar hakaraiv yumat”.
The leader of such a people can only be chosen based upon how close he has approximated the ideal of becoming Kadosh, and this is a determination that only Hashem can make. Ironically, the closer one comes to this ideal, the more acute the awareness of one’s deficiencies, and hence such a person will see themselves as unworthy for the task. This characteristic is evident in Moshe Rabbenu in the extreme. To accuse such a person of hitnasut can only reflect either the ignorance or the cynicism of the accuser.
This also explains Moshe’s reaction. He understood, and fell on his face. There is nothing that Moshe can say which to defend himself against such accusations. His authenticity as a leader can only be validated He who chose him for the task, by Hashem Himself. Hence, Moshe moves aside, to await Hashem’s verdict.
All of this not withstanding, Moshe still has a responsibility as a leader. In responding to the challenge of Korach, Moshe reminds Korach and his followers of the elevated status they already enjoy, capping his challenge with the famous rejoinder “rav lachem bnei Levi”(16:7). While this language is an obvious rebuttal of Korach’s insolent words, “rav lachem” the Gemara in Sota (13A) questions whether Moshe was justified in speaking to Korach in this way.
“R. Levi said, “with (the word) rav (Moshe) informed them (of their fate), and with the word rav (Hashem) informed him (Moshe, of his fate).”
When Hashem tells Moshe that he will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel, he tells him “rav lecha”, there is no use in further entreaties on this point. Why does the Midrash see it as instructional to link these two issues? Rashi, commenting on the Gemara in Sota, suggests that this is an additional manifestation of the well-known principle of G-d holding tzadikim to a higher standard. (For a different approach see the Torah Temima). But what precisely is that standard and how did Moshe fail to meet it? On this point Rashi is silent.
We can suggest however, that Moshe’s responsibility as a leader was to transcend the temptation for the sound bite that would play well with the crowd. Even when challenged, a leader must show respect for Am Yisrael, for in doing so he ultimately shows respect for Hashem, who has appointed him leader, and for himself as a leader. Our responsibility of mutual respect is not diminished by a leadership role, but increased. The manner of Hashem’s response to Moshe when he requests to enter Israel is a reminder of this.