This week, in Parashat Korach, Korach and a small group of Israelite leaders openly challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron. They begin with a plea for Moses to recognize the burden he has assumed, “It is too much for you!” they exclaim but then continue with words far more accusatory…”all are holy and God is among them; why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God?”
This is not mere disagreement or a kvetching after fish and leeks, but a full-on challenge to the authority of their leadership. Many of us in our political youth might have worn pins with the declaration, “Question Authority” guiding our politics – perhaps imagining ourselves to be the latest in a long lineage of political warriors. Even if we didn’t know about Korach, we were channeling Korach! God was with all the people, Korach claimed.
And, if God is with all the people, as Korach et al claimed, thereby conferring holiness and authority on them all, then the leadership of Moses and Aaron was not exceptional and could be challenged. However, Korach and those who stood with him were not recognizing that this was not a democracy – though we do see the seeds of what we come to call democracy in Korach.
Korach can be read as that person who first advocated for the extension of civic franchise: One person = one vote. This is a system that attempted, albeit slowly, to democratize civic societies. We see an extension of this challenge perhaps in the ending of the religious authority of the Kohanim, the priesthood, which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple.
Whilst Korach and company came to their own grim end, swallowed by the earth, and the destruction of the Temple was the beginning of two millennia of exile from the Land of Israel for Jews, I would argue there is a residue of that challenge that lingers within our Jewish leadership today. Rabbinic Judaism – extending from Moses through Joshua, through the Elders and the Prophets and the Great Assembly to the Pharisees to the Rabbis– brought the idea of scholarship and earned merit into religious leadership.
Leadership must be based on merit, on learning and putting learning into action. Learning, learning, learning. Each of us is called to learn. Whether by apprenticeship or academe, whether by challenging ourselves in prayer or history or philosophy, we are called to learn. May we all learn for the sake of heaven.
Kein ye’hi ratzon,