Korach and his followers challenge Moses’s and Aaron’s leadership, and are swallowed by the earth and consumed by fire. A rebellion breaks out among the people, resulting in a plague which kills 14,700 people. A test reconfirms Aaron’s appointment as High Priest. The duties of the priests and Levites, and their share in the produce, are described.
Judith Hauptman is the Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary. She is widely published, including: "Women and Prayer: An Attempt to Dispel Some Fallacies”, "A Time to Mourn, A Time to Heal" "Judaism and a Just Economy”.
I recently reread this week’s Parashat Korach from the perspective of a rabbi and teacher. I now understand it differently. The readers, of course, are meant to sympathize with Moshe and Aaron, to view them as noble leaders who are toiling for the good of the community and doing a fine job with a fractious bunch. But, let me note, more than 250 people gang up on these leaders and accuse them of acting in a self-serving manner. Did the people’s complaint have a basis?
The answer is that the leaders were not above reproach. Until Korach and others challenge Moshe and Aaron’s authority, there do not seem to be any available channels for criticism. And if there is no way for people who are unhappy with their leadership to say so, then the leaders are blameworthy.
The message of this parashah is that all individuals in positions of authority should try to find out, from time to time, what their community thinks of their job performance. A leader needs to ask, as Ed Koch, a former mayor of NYC, was famous for quipping, “How’m I doing?” He was usually doing well, but part of his success was his openness to criticism. The hapless manager of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in the eponymous film is similarly open to feedback.
When I teach courses at JTS, the school asks the students to evaluate me at the end of the semester. And the comments that come in are enlightening. I will never forget the time years ago when one young man told me that I may have taught a good course. But, he went on to say, when most students expressed their opinions in the classroom, I acknowledged their remarks with a nod or a “Nice!” There was one student, however, whose comments always received from me a wide smile. Without realizing it, by showering praise on one student, I made the others feel inadequate. A serious error on the part of a teacher.
So one takeaway message of this week’s parashat Korach is that no matter how hard you are working on behalf of others, no matter how pure your motives, you need to find out from them how they rate your actions.
The parashah ends with the rules of giving a tithe to the Levites. Since Moshe and Aaron are both Levites, this is God’s way of supporting the members of the tribe in their holy work (and “kadosh,” or holy, is a running term in the parashah). In a sense, this set of rules is a response to Korach’s rebellion. Since Moshe says at one point “lo hamor ehad meihem nasa’ti,” (16:15, I have not seized anyone’s ass), the underlying message is that people sometimes think that leaders keep donations, i.e., confiscated animals, for themselves. (Samuel later voices a similar concern [1 Samuel 12:3].) By making it clear that the Levites are entitled to their tithes, God is saying that the people’s suspicion of public servants lining their pockets is unfounded. The Levites, including the kohanim among them, will be remunerated for their work. The amount will be open and transparent. That should end the gossip. In short, this parashah addresses a serious issue of public trust that we still face today, and provides a reasonable, workable solution, for the leaders and the people.
Another Voice – Taste of Chavruta: Authority #9
Chavruta learning (learning in pairs) is one of the oldest and most powerful Jewish learning techniques. The Limmud Chavruta Project, now an international collaboration, is also one of Limmud's oldest and best-loved traditions, at Limmud Conference in the UK and at Limmudim around the world. Teams from around the world put together a Chavruta source book, filled to the brim with traditional and modern Jewish and secular readings for study which hundreds of Limmudniks use for studying in pairs. It is a wonderful, formative experience, opening people's eyes to new concepts and ideas, and helping people to forge life-long friendships.
Now, you can continue the Limmud chavruta experience in your daily life!
Try studying it at home, with your family, with colleagues at work during a break, with friends, during your commute, or by Skype or internet.
This year (2011-2012/5772), spread over 10 months (October-July), Taste of Chavruta will be investigating the theme of Authority. What happens when the secular and religious authorities disagree? Can these disagreements be resolved? Click on the link above, or go to www.limmud.org/publications/tasteofchavruta to find out more!