Thursday, 23 Jun 2011

Written by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

The Wilderness in 2011
(Numbers 17:6-26)

In the midst of a year it is hard to tell exactly how it will be remembered in the future. And while 2011 has brought many big new stories, it is likely that this year will be remembered for the protests and revolutions which spread across the Middle East. This year has already seen the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while in Yemen, Syria and Libya, dictators cling to power amidst continued protest and revolution. Across these countries, the people were united in their calls for a democratisation of their political system and the introduction of free and fair elections, alongside a variety of other reforms.

It is therefore interesting to read this week’s Torah portion of Korach against the backdrop of this news story. The man for whom the parasha is named is traditionally considered to be one of the Torah’s real bad guys. The Rabbis taught in the Talmud that from the time when God created the world, God knew that Korach was going to be trouble, and on the eve of that first Shabbat, following the six days God had spent creating the world, as one of the final ten things to be created, God create the mouth of the earth to swallow up Korach (Pesachim 54a). God knew in advance that this man was going to be trouble, and prepared an appropriate punishment for him at the very beginning.

There is something tragic about Korach. When we read about his challenge to Moses, it is hard to see what he did that was so wrong. He challenged Moses and Aaron, saying to them: ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?’ (Num 16:3). In our modern context, we could almost read Korach’s challenge as a call for a democratisation of the Israelite political order, he might well have been one of the people taking to the streets in 2011.

However, we might wonder what Moses and Aaron had done to warrant a challenge from Korach and his followers. While Korach’s call may sound reminiscent of the calls on the Arab streets this year, it is clear that Moses and Aaron cannot be compared to the Middle Eastern dictators. In fact during this episode one could argue that Moses and Aaron demonstrate once again why they were so well suited to lead the Jewish people.

Twice in this Torah portion God calls on Moses and Aaron to remove themselves from the community so ‘that I may annihilate them in an instant’ (Num. 16:21 and 17:10). The first time as the community stood behind Korach at the Tent of Meeting, waiting to see whom God would choose. And the second time after Korach and his followers had been swallowed up by the earth (and destroyed by fire), when the Israelites complained that Moses and Aaron had brought death upon the community.

With all that the Israelites had done to try and test Moses since he assumed the leadership of the community, one might have forgiven him, had he simply stepped to one side and allowed God to destroy the people. We could have understood if these two final incidents were the proverbial straws which broke the camel’s back, and led Moses to finally despair of his charges.

Instead the response of Moses and Aaron is the same on both occasions: ‘And they fell on their faces’ (Num. 16:22 and 17:10). Even when facing a potential mutiny, they did not resort to violence, and instead protected the people from God’s potentially devastating decree. They risked their own lives, opposing God and defending the people.

Moses and Aaron were worthy leaders because they defended their people, even when the people were in the process of challenging their authority to lead. And as God unleashed a plague on this rebellious group, ‘Moses said to Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire in it from the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly to the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for anger has come out from the Lord; the plague has begun’ (Num. 17:11). It is hard to imagine the dictators of 2011 protecting their people in the midst of their protest, or not seeking retribution in its aftermath.

Moses and Aaron did not deserve the challenge which Korach brought. They defended the people, setting aside their own personal interests, to make sure that the people were protected and saved when threatened by God. They may not have been democratically elected by a majority of the Israelite population, but they provided a leadership which prioritised the people’s needs above their own. And in the way they behaved, they provided a model of leadership which people across the world can appreciate.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman
June 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.