Moses was not good at politics. On Parashat Korach
Here’s the thing. Moses was not good at politics.
In the Torah reading, Moses, the most outstanding personality in Jewish history, the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt, was quite a strange leader. He remarkably lacked political skills.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is challenged by Korach. As the text clarifies, Korach belongs to a prestigious family; he is a Levite. In the Book of Psalms, there are Psalms composed by members of his family. So, quite a prestigious background. Korach is joined in his rebellion by people from a similar prestigious background, of which the Torah gives the complete genealogy: Datan and Abiram, sons of Eliah, On son of Peleth descendent of Ruben, and other “men of repute”, military chieftains, assembly leaders and the like.
What do they want? Well, we don’t know. The Torah does not mention any program, goal, or (to use a contemporary word) “platform” of this gang or rebel. Analyzing the text, the Rabbis have found some pretexts that Korah used to stir the rebellion. For example, in last week’s Torah portion, there was the commandment of wearing the tzitzit. So there’s a theory in the Jerusalem Talmud according to which Korach questioned the validity of this commandment. Because it was new, people were not used to observing, it was easy for him to find allies.
Mainly, all the commentators point out the impressive lineage of Korach and the other rebels. The Torah says that Korach challenged Moses and Aron by saying, “All the Israelite community is holy. Why do you two, Moses and Aron, elevate yourselves over the others?” This thing of elevating is interesting. It can be expanded as such: “why do you meet with God regularly, and from these meetings, you derive commandments which we all must follow?”
It’s an impressive speech. Korach was a noble person, a privileged, and a friend of the elite. A man of remarkable lineage. Yet, he pretended to speak and act as a “man of the people”, a pintele ydele we would say, someone who is snubbed and abused by those “elites” who elevate themselves over the others.
But Korach himself is a member of those elites he pretends to challenge. In this, he is not different from many populist leaders from a privileged background who act to speak in the name of the ordinary people.
This is the guy who challenged Moses. And it is a successful challenge. Not only did Korach assembles together a numerous gang of rebels, more than 200. Few paragraphs after the story of Korach, we read about another rebellion against Moses, equally pointless, with no goal nor real reason — this rebellion led by followers of Korach. In fact, the threat to the leadership of Moses is serious, and only God’s direct intervention will help Moses and Aron to remain in power.
It is very symbolic. The earth opens and swallows Korach and his allies (and their possessions). They were obsessed with this matter of elevation; they have accused Moses and Aron of “elevating”. And God punishes them by sending them and their allies down.
But, as I said, Moses is not good at politics. Had Moses been good at politics, he would have crushed the rebellion by promoting Korach to some prestigious title. This way, Korach would have been coopted inside the ruling class and lost any reason to rebel.
Moses, at this stage of history, has already an impressive curriculum. He has led the Israelites out of Egypt; he had prayed to ask God to provide food -and God helped them by giving the manna. Moses has achieved a lot, and Korach has achieved nothing. In the circumstances like this, the leader who is challenged exposes how his adversary is inept and hopeless. People hopefully understand who is better suited to be the leader.
Had Moses been a contemporary politician, he would undoubtedly have had a campaign manager to instruct him on how to bounce back at challenges such as Korach, by showing off his achievements. Moses does nothing of this; he just “falls on his face” -an enigmatic expression that describes, possibly, some form of trauma- and then turns to God for help.
This is what I meant when I said Moses was not good ad politics. Indeed Moses is called in our tradition “Rabeinu”, our teacher, certainly not “Malkheinu”, our king, our leader.
The Torah teaches us an important message by making us consider Moses’s lack of political skills, the most outstanding leader of Jewish history. Political leaders, those who deal with the people, cannot be the same as religious leaders, those who deal with God.
Different skills are required. These are different realms of human activity.
Ironically, the story of the populist leader who challenged Moses with the battle cry “All the community is holy” is taught to teach us the virtues of separation between politics and religion. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt — but he had kept in touch with God throughout the time.
Moses did not liberate the Israelites. God did. The name of Moses does not even appear in the Hagada. Moses has listened to the complaints of the Israelites, prayed to God, and God has provided manna..; in other words, Moses was just the religious leader, the one who dealt with God, not the political one.
At this stage, the people are still led by God. Only later, after having entered the Land of Israel, when the people dwell on the land, there is space for human politics, and the leadership of the Jews will become a secular affair.
And it will be up to the people to defend themselves from populist leaders like Korach, people born into privilege who claim to speak on behalf of the regular folks, and whose only ambition is to achieve power for themselves.
Korach is a recurring character in human history. There are plenty of Korach in politics. And it is up to us to learn how to spot them and keep them far from power. Sometimes we make it; sometimes, unfortunately, we do not.
But that’s for another sermon.