The optics were astounding, the words remarkable – the unpredictable President Trump and his spurring partner “Rocket Man”, smiling, walking alongside each other, talking peace and compromise. For now at least, this enduring and deep conflict in Korea appears to be closer to an end…
It’s a promising moment for a world more accustomed to conflict and despair. It’s a timely message for our parasha with its focus on dispute and challenge, namely showing human beings are capable of resolving differences.
But let’s reflect on the message this parasha does give on the nature of deep and divisive disagreements.
Many fights and arguments begin and persist because the people involved aren’t honest about their motives. They may pretend (to themselves as much as to others) that their motives for the arguments are important. They may dress them up in a very noble way like “I’m fighting for a principle” whereas in reality they are being simply selfish or stubborn and find it hard to admit.
The Parasha beautifully illustrates this point: Korach, a cousin of Moses, begins a revolt against him and Aharon saying: “You take too much upon you, since all the congregation are holy”. In other words he claims he wants a people’s democracy not a dictatorship. This powerful argument with its noble revolutionary goals attracts a large group of leading intellectuals and individuals – “250 princes of the community … men of repute”. In reality Korach’s bitter rebellion was spurred by personal reasons, he wanted more power for himself and felt that he had been overlooked when the honours were being handed out. Moshe with his deep understanding of the unconscious prompting of the human heart, unmasks the motives of Korach and his followers:
“Listen now, you sons of Levi, is it not enough that G-d has selected you (to the Levite role of leadership) … yet you want the priesthood as well” (16:10).
At the root of Korach and his followers criticism was pride and jealousy: Korach was upset that his cousin Elitzaphan was appointed to a higher position than him, the 250 leaders were firstborn and resentful that Aharon and his sons had replaced them as Kohanim (priests). The other revolutionaries – Datan, Aviram and On were angry that their tribe of Reuven had lost some of its privileges.
Korach was therefore not motivated by spiritual and democratic ideals. “Broiges”, resentment, and envy – the source of most interpersonal conflicts – were at the heart of his popular revolt. Had Korach delved into his own unconscious he would have recognised that his motives were tainted and driven by egotism.
Korach’s challenge and criticism of Moshe had merit – there is much space for the democratic impulse in Jewish Life. What makes Judaism strong is its ability to tolerate different opinions. In the passionate debates about the future of Israel and Jewish continuity we need to be sure that we don’t demonise our opponents. If our goals are “Le Shem Shamayim”, driven by pure and good motives (the continuity of Judaism) then both sides have a right to be heard.
If Korach had plumbed the darkness of his heart and approached Moshe in the spirit of a Jethro who knows what may have been contributed to the human endeavour?