Friday, June 26, 2020

Between Korach and Eldad and Medad

Readers of Parshat Korach who live in democratic societies might find this Torah reading uncomfortable. Korach seems to be drawing on an egalitarian ethos when he says: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” Isn't Korach's argument what democracy is all about?  Shouldn't one's leaders reflect the will of the people?

It is worth noting in this regard that there is a sharp contrast between Moshe's response to the complaints of Korach and his response to the episode of Eldad and Medad. In our Torah reading, Moshe responds with fury to Korach’s defiance. The Eldad and Medad narrative is also one of defiance, yet Moshe reacts very differently. Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and work alongside him. And two men who have not been invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, become independent prophets. This is so shocking that Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi adds an additional note: Eldad and Medad were predicting Moshe would die before entering the land of Israel. Eldad and Medad are no less defiant than Korach.

Yet what is Moshe's response? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”

What accounts for the difference between these two reactions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that the two sections are dealing with two aspects of Moshe's role. In the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophecy, a form of non-coercive influence. Prophecy is an inspiration that can be, and should be, shared widely. In this narrative, Korach wants to assume power in the place of Moshe. And that is impossible because two kings cannot wear one crown, and power must be united, not divided.

The difficulty with this position is that actually the 70 elders gathered to join Moshe are meant to be political leaders as well, helping Moshe lead the Jewish people; Moshe had just complained that he cannot lead the people on his own.

I would suggest a different approach. One verb that is shared between the two narratives is שא. However in each narrative it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad the verb is used to connote lifting a burden, that leading the people is an act of sacrifice, as if the leaders needs to carry the nation on their back. In the narrative of Korach, he uses this verb as reference to being lifted up, as if the political leader is the one who is lifted, and the leader is the one who benefits from his relationship with the community.

I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Edad and Medad are not searching for glory; they are simply finding inspiration and coming to offer support. That type of leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around. Korach however is in search of glory, and wants to be raised up by others. Ultimately, his thirst for glory would mean that Moshe would have to be deposed.

The ultimate difference between these two sections has to do with the attitude Korach on one hand, and Eldad and Medad on the other, take towards political leadership. When those with inspiration offer to help, then there is room even for the most defiant of voices; in this case, there is a common purpose and goal. When the leader sees themself as a servant, they are always happy to receive help. However, leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. 

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