Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Korah 5775
A Jealous Guy
There was once a man who was blessed in many ways: he was smart, he was wealthy and he came from a very good family. His name was Korah. From the outside it looked like he had everything going for him, but something went wrong: there was a tragic malfunction and his beautiful life crumbled.
Korah was a Levite, a blood relative of Moshe and Aharon and related to Nahshon by marriage – all significant leaders, each in his own right and in his own sphere; Korah was not. There was a time, when he was a young man, that things looked brighter for him: As a firstborn son, he was assured a position of service in the Temple – a position of exalted status and respect. But in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, the firstborn sons, who had participated in the sin, were replaced by the tribe of Levi.
And here was the irony: Korah’s cousin Aharon, who also hailed from the tribe of Levi, was arguably the only member of the tribe who was guilty of complicity in the golden calf debacle. In fact, it was the Levites – Korah’s and Aharon’s extended family - who “cleaned up the mess” and rid the world of those who had been active participants in that terrible sin. Why, then, was Korah “down-graded” from the position of kohen that was the birthright of the firstborn, and reduced to the status of “generic” Levite, while Aharon, whose hands were far from clean of sin, was awarded the supreme position of Kohen Gadol? Such was Korah’s view of the events, and the situation did not sit well with him.
And if this were not enough to raise Korah’s hackles, he did not need to look further than the next major sin committed in the desert, the sin of the spies. The Levites had not sent a representative to scout the land. The only member of their tribe who was involved in this sin, who had any level of complicity whatsoever, was Moshe, the man who had sent the spies on their mission in the first place.
The tribe of Levi had no part in the two major sins committed by the Israelites in the desert – with two notable exceptions: Aharon played no small role in the creation of the golden calf, and Moshe was the catalyst that set the sin of the spies in motion. Korah was incensed, infuriated, but what he perceived as the injustice of it all: He himself had been denied the position of service in the Temple that would now be taken by Aharon and his sons, while Moshe and Aharon seemed to be made of Teflon: The stain of these massive transgressions did not stick to them, and they slipped away unscathed. This may well be the background to Korah’s rebellion: He was driven to distraction by what was, in his opinion, the unfairness of it all.
Jealousy can be a powerful, self-destructive force; for Korah, it gave rise to self-righteousness, which he focused on issues of holiness - that is, the holiness of every member of the community other than Moshe and Aharon. He was capable of seeing and appreciating his own holiness, and the holiness intrinsic in every Jew who stood at Mount Sinai, but the holiness of Moshe and Aharon escaped him. Another fact that seems to have slipped his jealousy-ravaged mind was the source of Moshe and Aharon’s authority. Who, indeed, had appointed them to the lofty positions they held? Surely, Moshe had not actively sought out the spotlight. He had neither campaigned for the job nor sought exclusivity in his various roles as leader, judge or teacher; quite the opposite: God had to cajole Moshe to take up the reins of leadership, and Moshe repeatedly expressed his desire to share responsibility with the elders, even encouraging others who showed that they were capable of prophecy.
Leadership comes with a price. The people will inevitably err, and the leadership will inevitably be blamed. Real leadership is not measured by the ability to avoid all mistakes, but by the ability to minimize them, to foresee and forestall them whenever possible, and to confront the mistakes that will inevitably be made, not cover them up. Real leadership learns from past mistakes and tries to create systems and processes that will prevent their recurrence. There will always be people lying in wait on the sidelines, the slings and arrows of criticism in hand, poised to take advantage of any misstep in order to promote the implicit message that they themselves could do a better job. Blinded by ambition or jealousy, what they often fail to consider is the mistakes and tragedies that were avoided thanks to the strong and steady hand of the leadership they are so quick to criticize. From the comfort of their secure positions on the sidelines, they see only the flaws.
Korah had been handed one of the most important supporting roles in the Israelite camp: He and his family carried the Holy Ark when the Mishkan traveled. Yet rather than embracing the sacred trust that had been placed in him, rather than reveling in the proximity he had been granted to what was literally the holiest thing on earth, Korah attacked the members of his own family: He wanted what they had.
Among the great gifts Korah had been given was his children. They were not tainted by their father’s jealousy, and when their father rebelled, they sided with Moshe and Aharon. They were more than content with the task assigned to them; they felt honored to have been entrusted with carrying the Ark of the Covenant. When their father fell into the abyss, they did not go down with him. They lived on, fulfilling their sacred role, and their descendants in turn lived on to serve and sing in the Temple. Korah’s descendants rose to the challenge of the task they had been assigned, and they brought honor to their service, which in turn brought them honor and distinction. They were holy people, from a holy family, whereas Korah lost everything: his honor, his wealth, the respect of his children, and his life. Such is the power of jealousy.
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