What Korach can teach us about Brexit, and other political rebellions

I’m writing this post as I’m about to depart for Europe. First stop, London, and then on to Portugal. In preparing for a celebration of my mother’s 70th birthday, and the opportunity to share some Torah at her congregation in London, I found that Parshat Korach gives us a great deal of food for thought at this moment, both in Europe and here in the US.

In reviewing commentaries, midrashim, and other insights of the early rabbis regarding the attempted rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses’ leadership, we find political intrigue to match anything hitting our news headlines today. It seems that there really is nothing new under the sun. In the biblical account it is God that settles the matter rather than a Referendum or a democratic vote. I think that is because the authors of our tradition, and certainly the rabbis who followed, understood that the path of Korach would have led to anarchy and the destruction of any sense of peoplehood before it had even been created. ‘Why are you the central authority?’ he challenges. ‘If we are a priestly people, surely we are all entitled to take up the mantle of leadership and take the people in a different direction!’

Of course, today the situation isn’t quite so straightforward. We do value democracy and autonomy, and ‘we the people’ have been given the responsibility to make political decisions that will shape our future. But are there insights we can draw from the debates and discussions of centuries past about the conflict between Korach and Moses that can help us think more clearly about the choices we are facing today? Is there a middle way, where the only response doesn’t have to be ‘you are wrong and I am right’? Is there a way to authentically acknowledge and identify the concerns that drive some toward extreme voices who make false promises, such that we might actually come together over those legitimate concerns without resorting to extremism, or legitimizing the extremists who so easily play on our concerns?

I am yearning for leadership to emerge, both in the US and in the UK, that is not polarizing and that offers a pathway forward that is not built on fear mongering. What does that kind of leadership sound like? In Numbers 16:8, the Torah states that, in speaking with Korach, Moses says, ‘Hear now, Sons of Levi’. Textual critics see some of the confusion between who is involved in the rebellion and who is addressed as signs of different textual traditions that have been woven together. But earlier generations of rabbis interpreted the text as a complete narrative. In Midrash Rabbah, it is asked why Moses addresses the Sons of Levi and not Korach directly. The answer given is that Moses had attempted to speak softly and privately to Korach to entreat him to retract his challenge. Despite those thoughtful attempts to deescalate the situation, when Korach will not listen, or even engage in a conversation about it, Moses then addresses the larger group to try and persuade them to step back from the precipice.

It is a particular skill among leaders to take note not only of the content of their appeals, but the tone of their speech, and a recognition of who needs to be included and reached out to. Today we hear many state that they feel that ‘the politicians’ are not listening to them and not paying attention to the challenges in their lives. This, more than anything, is propelling radical voices with radical solutions forward, irrespective of whether their plan would make a concrete difference, or whether they actually have a plan (it has become quite evident that there was no plan for what happened after the Brexit vote, and one of the substantive critiques leveled at Donald Trump is his lack of strategic plans and policies).

As we continue to read the story of Korach and his followers, we find another familiar trope in Numbers 16:12-14. Now Moses is appealing to some of the other leaders of the rebellion, Dathan and Abiram, but still to no avail. They say to him, ‘Do you think it is an insignificant thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness?’ They use the very phrase to describe Egypt as was used to describe the Promised land that still lies ahead in the future of the people. Of course, it had not been Moses’ plan for this generation to die in the wilderness. Just last week, the parsha recalled the story of 10 of the 12 spies sent to scout out Canaan who caused panic and disillusionment among the people that it would not be possible to defeat the other tribal clans living in the land. This is why they now face decades of wandering instead of preparing to enter the Promised Land.

So often we look back to the past with rose-tinted glasses, yearning to go back when we find ourselves facing challenges in the present moment. Our parsha shows us that this is a page from a very ancient playbook (Make ‘fill-in-the-blank’ great again!). It has been played a great many times in human history. But the truth is that, whatever the best solutions to real issues might be, it is not possible to go back.  Whether talking national politics, or individual life decisions, can we make wiser choices if we can manage to cope with the temporary discomfort and uncertainty while thoughtfully pursuing solutions? How often do we make poor decisions in haste as a way of avoiding the discomfort or anxiety that arises when something isn’t going as well as it could for us?  Simply raising self-awareness of our tendency to act this way and recognizing how often power-hungry and destructive leaders have led us astray by preying on those discomforts and anxieties, can help us choose more wisely and listen more carefully to the choices that truly lie before us.

The rebellion of Korach is solved with miraculous acts of God. That narrative may have served to affirm Moses’ leadership and the direction he was taking the people, but the story won’t end that way for us. We all need to take responsibility for how our modern day stories of political intrigue and rebellion will end.

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