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The Korach Test

Friday July 1, 2022 – ב׳ תַּמּוּז תשפ״ב

A friend suggested to me that the true mark of genuine political leaders is if they could achieve all their goals, implement all their initiatives, and advance all their causes but on the condition that their names would not be attached to their bills passed or initiatives implemented. If they agree to swallow that hard pill, then they should proceed in politics and leadership, and if not, they should go home.

As we read this week (in the Diaspora) in Parashat Korach, Moses’ leadership is challenged by Korach and his supporters. We might all agree that challenging leadership is inherently a good thing – especially when the leader appears incompetent or unjust. At face value, Korach’s accusation against Moses and Aaron should be seen as a worthy תוכחה, a redeemable rebuke to their leadership, if we accept the reasons as legitimate for doing so.

“You have gone too far! For all the community is holy, all of them, and יהוה is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above יהוה’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

In reaction, Moses “fell on his face,” most likely from shame, as the commentators teach us. The scene here is among the most famous in the Torah. The next day Moses tells the people that God will decide who the leaders will be. He assembles Korach’s followers and, as an ultimate Divine rebuke against them, the earth opens and swallows all 250 of them including all of their earthly belongings.

Following the episode, the Mishna in Pirkei Avot, famously uses the example of Korach as the quintessential case of a dispute that is not “for the sake of heaven”:

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם,  סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם; וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם? זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי; וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ: (משנה אבות ה יז)

“Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.” (Avot 5:17)

A year ago, a group of ideologically diverse Israeli leaders came to the longtime ruler and said: “You have gone too far!” They banded together and forged an unlikely coalition with the expressed goal of deposing the current leader. They succeeded in creating an experimental and broad governing coalition that seemed to be stuck together with chewing gum and scotch tape. This week, that coalition could hold together no more.

The question this week is one of leadership.

Are our leaders today leading for “the sake of heaven” or for their own sake?

Are our leaders putting themselves first, ahead of the country, or do they have the country’s and citizens’ best interests in mind?

It is clear from the recent testimony (and a myriad of other examples) that the immediate past-President of the United States was acting (to put it delicately) not “for the sake of heaven”!

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this week overturning Roe v Wade could be interpreted as fulfilling an ideological aspiration, and thus L’Shem Shamayim (for the sake of heaven), although it could also be regarded as putting the interests of some above the well-being of the collective and not taking into consideration the damage to millions of women that will be caused by its precedent-breaking decision.

In Israel, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself and go to another round of elections, its fifth election in a little more than two years.

In the process of dissolution, the Knesset did a speed-voting session on over 50 resolutions and bills before the impending deadline.

One such bill, known as the ‘Metro Bill,’ would approve Israel’s most ambitious infrastructure project – an underground subway system and above-ground light-rail system that will connect Tel Aviv’s commuter zones to materially reduce traffic. Its route is mostly through areas that are already densely built, and it is potentially one of the most complex global engineering projects but, when complete, will dramatically improve Israel’s quality of life for all Israelis.

The opposition led by former Prime Minister Netanyahu opposed this bill purely on the grounds that it didn’t want the government to include this project in its list of significant and important achievements over the past year.

In addition, the government realized a 30-million Shekel surplus over which a debate ensued as to how to use it. Some said, L’Shem Shamayim, that it is taxpayer money and should be returned to the taxpayers. Others proposed using it for governmental campaign financing ahead of the new elections with the hopes of boosting their electoral success rather than for the benefit of the citizenry (which might have done more for their campaigns in the long run) – Lo L’Shem Shamayim.

Only a few hours ago, Yair Lapid was sworn in as Prime Minister of this transitional caretaker government. His test will be whether he can prove to the public that he has their best interest in mind. Even though he’s not known as shy or without ego, it is fair to say that he already passed the Korach test in deferring becoming Prime Minister when he had more Knesset seats than Naftali Bennett a year ago, but for the sake of the good of the country agreed that Bennett should be PM before himself. He did what he needed to do in order to politically stabilize the nation, even without public recognition or immediate reward. His actions over the past year have proven that he acted in the interest of the collective and not himself, while Netanyahu has proven over time that he wants what is best for only himself. Bibi likely will survive the attempt to prohibit him from forming a government with the failure of a bill barring any indicted person from forming a government (known in Hebrew as חוק הנאשם proposed by MK and head of the Constitution and Law Committee Rabbi Gilad Kariv), which states that anyone who is under indictment will not be allowed to form a government.

This moment is about something much larger than the passage of any of these laws or even a new election. While there is nothing new about politicians and political parties looking out for their own interests and constituencies this is about us, as Jews, evaluating our leaders, rabbis, cantors, educators, community leaders, and politicians – using the Korach test.

Korach was not wrong to challenge Moses’ leadership. He was not wrong to ask, “Why do you raise yourself above the community?” But we are told by tradition that he did not do so for the “sake of heaven,” or for a righteous and justified purpose. He did it for the sake of his own position and power.

Those who disrupt and challenge the existing power structures in our world are not wrong to do so. On the contrary, making a challenge when those structures are inherently unjust or dysfunctional is meritorious. However, they need to pass the Korach test and prove transparently that they are doing so for the “sake of heaven,” For the common good.

All the rest is commentary.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.

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