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Parshat Korach — Fame and fortune

If you have the funds to influence your communal leaders, do you serve the greater good or do you settle your own petty scores? (Korach)
A painting of Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
A painting of Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Jakob Fugger was possibly the richest person who ever lived. Adjusting for inflation, his wealth of $400 billion puts him ahead of John D. Rockefeller ($336 billion) or Andrew Carnegie, ($310 billion), who were the next richest people and are far better known in the English-speaking world.

Jakob Fugger von der Lilie (to give him his full title) who lived from March 6, 1459 – December 30, 1525, was better known simply as Jakob Fugger the Rich. His family were textile merchants in the German city of Augsburg, but Fugger succeeded in expanding the business across almost all of Europe.

Fugger, along with his two older brothers Ulrich and Georg (Jakob was the 10th or of 11 children) began providing finance to the House of Hapsburg and the Roman Curia. Following a series of loan defaults and wise investments, the brothers also secured mining rights in Tyrol, Bohemia, Hungary, and Almadén.

By 1487, Jakob was running the business and along with his brothers, had a virtual monopoly on copper. They exported it all over Europe and even as far away as India. The family also imported raw cotton, silks, herbs, rare foods, jewels and controlled most of Europe’s pepper market for decades. The Fuggers eventually owned a fleet of ships that transported their goods throughout Europe. Their network and wealth also acted as a bank, providing loans, transferring funds and extending credit across the continent.

Fugger was generous with his money and, along other philanthropic projects, built a chapel in Augsburg which was Germany’s first Renaissance building.

The Fuggerei. (CC BY-SA, context medien und verlag Augsburg/ Wikimedia Commons)

He also built the Fuggerei, which is the world’s oldest social housing complex still in use. The 147 apartments are available to Catholics who are poor but without debt. The rent has always remained at one Rheinischer Gulden (equivalent to a few cents) per year, as well as a requirement to pray three times a day for the owners of the Fuggerei.

Among the thousands of people who have lived in the Fuggerei over the past 500 years perhaps the most famous was Franz Mozart, grandfather of Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart, who resided there from 1681 to 1694.

Commemorative plaque for Franz Mozart in Augsburg. (CC BY, Emkaer/ Wikimedia Commons)

With his fantastic wealth Fugger was also had a huge influence on European politics. He financed the rise of the Hapsburg King Maximilian I to the position of Holy Roman Emperor. He also supported Maximilian’s grandson Carlos, who defeated other hopeful claimants and became Charles V. Fugger used his wealth to secure politically advantageous marriage for the House of Hapsburg, which earned them the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary.

In exchange for his financial support, Maximilian elevated Fugger to the nobility, granting him the title of Imperial Count. Throughout his lifetime, the wealthy benefactor gained dozens of titles and honors.

Portrait of Maximilian I painted in 1519 by Albrecht Dürer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

After his death, Fugger left an incredible fortune of 2,032,652 gilders to his nephew Anton. And his influence on the royal families and politics of Europe continue for decades afterwards.

I wanted to write about Fugger’s enormous wealth this week because I am reminded of Korach, who gives his name to this week’s Torah portion. The Talmud (Pesachim 119a) says that Korach was also one of the richest people to ever live. According to the rabbis, he discovered a huge treasure hidden in Egypt by Joseph. His fortune was so large that it took 300 mules just to carry all the keys to his treasure houses.

Hoard of ancient gold coins. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Midrash (Numbers Rabba 22:7) states that the only person with comparable wealth was Haman. As is well known, Haman used his tremendous fortune to influence politics, offering 10,000 silver ingots to King Achashverosh for the right to kill all the Jews (Esther 3:9). With his wealth Haman rose to a position of authority and power and everyone in the kingdom had to bow down to him.

Presumably Korach, like Haman and Fugger after him, expected that his great wealth would also gain him a certain degree of importance and respect. If he couldn’t use his money to influence the leader, at least he could expect some kind of honor from Moses.

Instead, although he was Moses’s cousin, he was publicly humiliated. Korach was a Levite, and in Parshat Beha’alotecha, the Torah relates that before the Levites were consecrated for their role, they were sprinkled with purifying water and then shaved completely, from head to foot.

Illustrative. A bald man hiding in shame. (Public Domain/ MaxPixel)

Imagine Korach’s shame as he arrived home that day — his wife would hardly have recognized him. His friends would have laughed at him behind his back because of his new “hairstyle.” To add insult to injury, Korach’s name means “bald” so we can only begin to imagine the depths of his embarrassment.

So he resolved to use his money to bring down Moses and the entire system. If he couldn’t sway the leadership with his money, he would instead fund the rebellion to bring down the establishment.

Korach’s rallying cry was that everyone was equally holy, and that there was no reason that Moses or Aaron should have more power than anyone else. Many would have noted the irony of someone boasting of his enormous wealth and seeking honor, while at the same time claiming to be an advocate for the people, campaigning on the platform that everyone is equal.

Despite the obvious fact that Korach launched his attempted power grab to get back at those who humiliated him, and notwithstanding inherent falsehood in Korach’s rallying cry that everyone was equal while he himself aspired to more glory than everyone else, he gathered many followers around him. Had they all forgotten everything that Moses had done for the Children of Israel, or were they swayed by Korach’s money and talk?

We all know how the story ended — Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the mouth of the earth, which opened up beneath them. They and all their possessions were destroyed. Instead of bringing Korach power and honor, his campaign led to his total downfall. Though initially he was only ridiculed for his baldness, after his thwarted coup he was held up by the rabbis as the paradigm of a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven.

Korach achieved the fame he so desired — to this day people still know his name. But instead of using his wealth to help others and earn his place alongside the great philanthropists, Korach’s money was spent on his ego-trip and he is remembered as the ultimate failure.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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