The Power Struggle

Moses vs. Korah.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

What a dramatic power struggle we have just witnessed in this parashah! A cabal of influential rebels tries to take power from Moses, daring to risk their lives to promote their own self-interest over the sacred destiny of their people. Their downfall is stark and dreadful.

Yet, the Torah teaches, even though Korah dies, his descendants live on (Numbers 26:n). We certainly see them today: cynical political, religious, and communal leaders cloaking self-interest in the language of democracy, nationalism, or God. In wielding power in such shortsighted ways, these modern-day rebels present an even greater threat to God's creation than Korah did to Moses' leadership. This Torah portion urges us to be vigilant, lest such persons undermine the communities that we are called to create and sustain.
women's commentary
But it is not only public leaders who play Korah's role today. We, too, live with an ongoing conflict between an "inner Moses" and an "inner Korah" between humility and arrogance, between selflessness and selfishness. And until we can hear the difference between those two voices, our actions will not be effective in countering the power of the Korahs at large in the world. We need to be clear when it is the voice of our needy, small-minded self that advises us to act, or when it is the wise voice that speaks from our deepest and best values and truth. We need a practice of reflection to discern which voice is guiding us. Happily, we can also find some guidance in this parashah.

A Servant of God

In our tradition Moses is seen as humility embodied--the true servant of God. The Sfas Emes, a 19th-century Hasidic master, understood Moses as being so far from pride in his bearing that people could not fathom his modesty. In parashat Korah, we see Moses in that place of humility, able to lead because he loves God and the Israelites with every fiber of his being, despite his constant frustration with both of them. Twice he falls on his face-before Korah and before God-trying to stop the rebellion and to prevent God from destroying the persistently disobedient Israelites.

Moses acts from the deep understanding that Korah's challenge has nothing to do with him; it is a challenge to God. He knows himself to be the vessel through which God's vision for the Israelites could become manifest, not the man who has to prove himself superior to an insolent competitor. Throughout the journeys of the Israelites, we see Moses grow as a spiritual leader: from a reluctant young man who struggles with anger and lack of self-confidence to become the quintessential leader-one who is able to overcome his own ego in order to serve a much greater cause. Finally, he becomes one who accepts God's decision that he will die-and that he will die outside the land of Israel.

Personal Ambition

Korah is different. His challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, not love of God or of the Israelites. Unlike Moses, who hesitated to take the leadership that God offered, Korah seeks to grab it for himself Tradition interprets the opening of the parashah--literally "And Korah took"-to mean that he took himself apart from the people (Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer; Torah Gems, 1998, p. 77). Korah would have done nothing to stop God from destroying the Israelites, for he would have loved to be the sire of a whole new people. Unlike Moses, Korah sees the whole story as being about himself and the role he wants to playas a powerful chief priest.

Reading this parashah, I ask: how do I recognize Korah in my own thoughts and actions, and how do I liberate the consciousness that Moses had? In my job as the director of a wonderful non-profit institute, I find that Korah seems to pop up most frequently when I am afraid. What if I don't succeed at raising enough money? What if I don't succeed at making out work known? What if I am not good enough? What if this work fails because of my incompetence? In such moments of doubt, I make myself the central actor on stage, starring in the "The Tragedy of Rachel." In that place of fear, I separate myself from the community doing the work, and I clutch for some way to feel in control. I can't see the whole. There is no way to make wise decisions.

But if I make time, like Moses, to fall on my face to breathe and reflect-I can hear the "I" shouting out in all its grandiosity. I reply, "Rav l'kha (Enough of this), Korah!"--acknowledging that once again I have made the story about me and my fears. In that space, Moses can emerge and call me back to humility--to the recognition that I, like everybody else, am but a bit player on this stage. I can rekindle the trust that I have in the wisdom of the unfolding of the work and in the wisdom of my colleagues to figure out what will flow from this moment.

The Korah in all of us gets triggered by different emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, greed or doubt. When this happens, we lose sight of the whole and become caught up in our own inner dramas. Our needs eclipse the needs of others.

Moses' path-and ours-is to move from the narrow place of doubt, fear, anger, and jealousy to an expansive covenanted life in a community of mutual care and responsibility. In such a community, all people are holy. They-we-can remind each other that what matters is not the ambition of the self, but the work of helping to make the soul, the home, the office, and the world a safer, wiser, more compassionate place for all. Such a perspective helps each of us to come closer to being a humble servant of God.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Rabbi Rachel Cowan

Rabbi Rachel B. Cowan is the Director of the Jewish Life and Values Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York.