Hebraic Studies - Parashat Korach

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Parashat Korach

With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

It was from the story of Korach, the man after whom a recent Parashah is named, that I came to learn about demagoguery. That was the label I came to understand should be attached to Korach: demagogue. That’s where and when I learned what a demagogue is.

“Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men and they rose up in face of Moshe - Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe - Moses and against Acharon - Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of ?’” Be’midbar - Numbers 16:1-3 (JPS).

I learned that sometimes there are people who like Korach, twist the truth, or distort facts, in order to achieve power. They make themselves all powerful, essentially stealing power from everyone else.

But that label, “demagogue,” which comes from the Greek, meaning “leader of the people,” always left me with a question: Why do people choose demagogues to lead them? What led the Children of Israel to put their trust in someone like Korach, when they’ve been led so ably by Moshe for so long? When one considers modern elected demagogues like Hitler the same question arises: Why? Why did people vote for him? How could they have enabled him to exercise so much power? You can understand how a Stalin could rise to the top: he did not have to contend with popular elections. But Hitler? It was the German people after all, who put him over the top.

A response to that question is this; Korach is what you might describe “the first populist”. I am not sure if you will understand what I mean with that label, but I will make it somewhat clearer as I go on.

Thus we so far have described Korach as “The First Populist” for a populist must be responsive to the popular will, right? Well, yes, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. For the popular may be a perspective, or it may be an emotional perspective. And if rational it’s the latter, it is possible for otherwise intelligent and reasonable people to cast their lot with someone truly dangerous.

“Populism,” can also be a political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man being fed up with 1 - wealth and opportunity gaps, 2 - perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders and 3 - the “establishment elites” not working effectively for them.

A feeling of being fed up in positions of power, and 4 - government leads people to want to put strong leaders in power, with the hope that they will “give them back what’s been taken from them.” That rarely happens. Instead, once such a leader assumes power, things begin to fall apart.

The point is that Korach was indeed a ‘populist’ and he reminds us that, in contrast, Judaism prizes respectful disagreement, and indeed insists on the legitimacy of arguments for the sake of Heaven, and we would all agree with that.

What happened to the angry and rebellious Korach?

“And Moshe - Moses said: ‘Hereby ye shall know that hath sent me to do all these works, and that I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then hath not sent Me. But if make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised .’ And it came to pass, as he made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground did cleave asunder that was under them. And the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korach, and all their goods. So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly” Be’midbar - Numbers 16:28-33 (JPS).

But I would now like to focus on the anger element. When a political leader, like Korach, expresses resentment, even ostensibly on behalf of the people: watch out. For anger has a way of engendering anger. And frequently, when anyone expresses anger, you can feel and see it ricocheting around the room. As we well know it seems to happen in politics the very same way.

Although I am well aware that anger is no stranger to human nature at large as I have seen far too much of it in life, especially within my own mishpachah and it is so sad to see how destructive it is!

Thus the lesson is so simple, be weary of all anger, for it is blinding and it usually leads to wrong doing! I beg you, if you feel that anger is about to enter your life, please in the Name of our heavenly Father, open a Tanakh or a Siddur and read some Tehillim - Psalms and or any other suitable prayers, or the anger will destroy you, as I have seen others do, and they have been so badly damaged by their actions!

Shabbat Shalom.


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Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.


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