Parashat Korah

Different Leaders For Different Times

While Korah's rebellion was inappropriate in the context of newly freed slaves in the wilderness, his challenges speak to us powerfully today.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Turn it over and over, our tradition says, and all can be found in Torah, even principles of democracy hidden in the language of revolution. Korah, a relative of Moses and Aaron, leads a rebellion in the desert in which he and his cohorts are killed and their treason condemned by God.

The desert is a fearful place and the Israelites are a frightened, inchoate mass of refugees. To demand the overthrow of Moses and Aaron as they attempt to bring the children of Israel from slavery to freedom would have undermined the liberation and thrown the covenanted people into anarchy. Korah's rebellion was an act of personal aggrandizement roundly condemned by the tradition. But his words, his critique of Moses, remain as verses in the Torah that we continue to read year after year.

Korah said to Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far! This whole community is sacred (kadosh), all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation?" The words may be heresy for an embattled people in the desert, but ring truer at the latter part of the 20th century.

The rabbis tell us to judge a leader within the context of the age in which he or she lives. Moses succeeded in the desert, but would have failed in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). King David was a hero in founding a state, but could not insure its survival. The rabbis provided a remarkable structure for life in Diaspora, but cannot structure Jewish life in Israel.

While Korah would have destroyed the Israelites in the desert, his words are a charge to the Jewish people today. The will of God can be located in the democratic decisions of the Jewish people if we actualize our potential for sacredness and allow God to reside in our midst.

David Elcott

David Elcott is Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and senior research fellow at the Research Center for Leadership in Action. He was the Vice-President CLAL, Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee, and Executive Director of the Israel Policy Forum.