Korach and the Challenges of Rabbinic Leadership
by Rabbi David Fried
Sefer Bemidbar is filled with the rebellions of the Jewish people in the desert. However, there is something strikingly different about the rebellion of Korach. For the first time, we see Jews referring to themselves as kahal hashem and am hashem. In all the previous rebellions, they failed to internalize that idea. They rejected the covenant with God and wanted to return to Egypt. Korach’s rebellion is not against God, but against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. While… still wrong, a profound change has clearly occurred in the mindset of the Jewish people to even be susceptible to this sort of rebellion.
On another level, though, there is something far more insidious about Korach’s rebellion. On a certain level, it is easy to reject leaders who are openly calling for us to abandon the values we hold most dear. It is the leaders who play into those values, who present themselves as a more authentic version of those values (while secretly doing it for their own selfish ends) who can be most dangerous because their rhetoric entices us and it is harder to notice they are doing anything wrong. How then are we supposed to detect this kind of rebellion? Based on Parshat Korach, I would suggest two answers.
1) Datan and Aviram blame Moshe for the fact that they have not entered the land of Israel yet. Any leader who seeks to enable us to avoid personal responsibility and is targeting another person or group to blame for our problems should not be trusted.
2) Pirkei Avot 5:20 states, “Any argument which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately last. Any argument which is not for the sake of Heaven will ultimately not last.”
The use of the statement and its inverse makes the connection biconditional, and we may legitimately imply the converses as well. Any argument which does not last, was not for the sake of Heaven.
If your goal in an argument is to silence your opponent (and I don’t mean merely through physical or emotional coercion, but even through to force of a good and compelling argument), if you would rather they just agree with you so you can go home and stop arguing, then your argument is not for the sake of Heaven. If your argument is for the sake of Heaven, you want to hear the other side, you want the act of arguing to bring out the weaknesses in both sides and ultimately strengthen both.
That same Mishnah in Pirkei Avot mentions Korach and his assembly as the paradigm of those who were arguing not for the sake of Heaven. As I just demonstrated, one who is arguing for the sake of Heaven wants to see the argument last and endure, whereas one who is not arguing for the sake of Heaven wants the argument to end as soon as possible. We can see this with Korach as well. Moshe Rabbeinu invited Korach and his assembly to come demonstrate that they were more fit to serve in the Mishkan than Aharon and his sons. A good leader is never afraid of a debate, of hearing the arguments of their opponent. Their primary concern is not their own leadership, but the wellbeing of those they lead, and therefore are always open to new ideas. Korach and his assembly, on the other hand, refused to participate in this debate. When leaders refuse to engage the other side in debate, no matter what their stated reason (like not wanting to legitimize the other position by debating it, or the claim that the other side is not acting for the sake of Heaven and therefore it would be wrong to engage them), that is the dead-giveaway that they are not motivated for the sake of Heaven.