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Of Donkeys and Oxen

Korach represents, perhaps, the greatest threat to the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, and it is all the more disappointing because they are related. I guess after the internecine battles in Breishit we should almost expect that our gravest threats will come from those with whom we share DNA. If you don’t believe me ask King David (O Avshalom, O Avshalom). But in this article I’m more interested in Moshe’s reaction to the attack rather than in the attack itself.

When the cousin, Korach, speaking for himself and his cohorts replies to Moshe’s request for them to appear before him with this retort: We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?…We will not come! (Bamidbar 16: 12-14). It’s at this point that Moshe seems to lose his cool.

Moshe’s reaction, in a plea to God, displays his frustration: Then Moses became very angry (VAYICHAR, wroth, much aggrieved) and said to the Eternal, ‘Pay no attention to their offering! I have not taken one donkey from them, nor have I harmed any one of them’ (verse 15). Moshe clearly gets very defensive over these attacks. But for this faithful shepherd to beg God to ignore their service is remarkable and very much out of character. 

This exasperation is echoed in this week’s Haftorah by another Levite leader of the Jewish nation: Here I am; testify against me before the Eternal and Saul His anointed. Whose ox or donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded or oppressed? Or from whose hand have I received any bribe to blind my eyes? Tell me and I will restore it to you (Shmuel I 12:3). Shmuel’s list of uncommitted crimes is more comprehensive than Moshe’s, but the gist is the same: I have been an honest leader to this ungrateful nation.

I strongly believe that these parallel verses are the reason for this passage to be our Haftorah. But what is the true meaning of these outbursts?

The earliest known comment on the parallel nature of these statements is the Amora, Rav Abba bar Kahana: Weighty is theft, as the two greats of the world needed to argue about it – Moses and Samuel (Midrash Shmuel 14). The Ralbag adds that Shmuel’s list of corrupt practices of leaders is more comprehensive because after the period of the Judges the nation was more aware of the immoral practices of their less than perfect leaders.

According to the Ramban, the protestations of both leaders are all the more remarkable, because many of these practices (not the bribery) would have been legitimate actions on the leaders’ part. In other words, one can take from communal coffers to carry out legitimate governmental functions. Shmuel made the rounds of the Tribes on his donkey, if he had appropriated a donkey for these travels it would have been well within his rights. Nevertheless, they only used their own assets to carry out their duties.

The Tur elaborates on that point: He had not levied any taxes on any of the people as is customary and willingly accepted by the subjects of any rulers. He had not even borrowed an animal to carry a load for him. 

It is actually very sad that these selfless leaders had to point out their altruism for the nation. Their good deeds should have been so self evident that no declaration should have been needed. However, that’s not how the world works.  The masses often are blinded by cynicism, and, as a result, even the best leaders have to point out certain realities, even when it goes against their normal behavior patterns. Great leaders teach as well as lead.

Rabbeinu Bechaye also notes the clear connection between these two passages, when he points out the sad necessity to make these statements: Seeing he had not even used a beast of burden for his own personal use, how could he be accused of using people, i.e. his subjects, for such a purpose? How then had he “lorded” it over the people? We find that the prophet Samuel also could say of himself: (Samuel I 12,3) “here I am, come forward against me in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of his anointed one, whose ox or donkey have I taken and whom did I defraud or whom have I robbed? From whom have I accepted a bribe, etc.?

 The Kedushat Levi, who was well known for his own concern and love for every Jew, points out that the true message of Moshe’s declaration was: The general rule is that that Moses constantly tried to ‎spiritually uplift the people of Israel and to thereby bring them ‎closer to God. He states here that this endeavor of his included ‎every single one of the Israelites. He did not elevate even a single ‎Israelite at the expense of others whom he did not elevate. ‎Similarly, when trying to be close to the people, he did not favor any Israelite at the expense of another Israelite about whom he ‎supposedly cared less. 

The Rebbe points out that the term HAREI’OTI (Which we translated above as ‘nor have I harmed’) should be read differently. This verb comes from the word REI’A, colleague or fellow, not the adjective RA, bad. So the end of our verse should be translated: I never treated anyone as a closer fellow Jew than any other. This is critical to true, effective leadership, because we know that many times cronies of leaders are favored and pampered by lesser leaders.

When reading both of these passages, I can’t help but feel a certain sadness, especially for Moshe. This most humble of all humanity (Bamidbar 12:3) had to step out of character to refute these calumnies spread by Korach and Co. Leaders should be scrutinized, but this must be done respectfully and with great care. But there’s another lesson, and we should learn it from Korach: The would-be leaders who do the most character assassination, should be the most scrutinized. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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