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What we have here is failure to communicate.
– “Cool Hand Luke”
Moses has failed.
After the spies’ mission, Moses was supposed to lead the nation into the Promised Land. Instead, the leaders of the tribes descended into finger-pointing and the people dissolved in despair. God condemned the Israelites to forty years of wandering, meaning most of those redeemed from slavery in Egypt will now die in the desert. God’s promise remains, but is now unimaginably distant, as those who heard the promise will not live to see it. At the critical moment, when strong leadership was called for, Moses revealed himself as very much “not a man of words” – but also significantly not a man of action. His silence while the spies raged at one another, indeed, his complete absence from the scene, are baffling.
Did Moses hope the people would learn leadership through this mission? That the conquest of the land would be the staging ground for forging a cooperative leadership class? But maybe the spies were emulating Moses, a monolithic leader who announces one law for all. The spies returned with good intelligence about what awaited them. But they could not speak to one another to create a strategy. They were the leaders of the tribes. Why could they not work together?
Moses conveys God’s words to the people. But it turns out that he lacks the powers of argument to inspire people to act. Moses has no gift of persuasion. At two critical moments in this week’s portion, Moses shows himself literally incapable of speech. When Korach launches his challenge (16:4) and again, when God threatens to destroy the entire nation (17:10) Moses’ response in both cases is to fall on his face, avoiding all confrontation and burying the very organ of speech, just as Korach will be buried in retribution.
Not all great orators are great leaders; but the successful leader must know how to convince people. At critical junctures, when the existence of the nation is at stake, it is not enough that God speaks directly to Moses. Moses must also know how to persuade the people. Perhaps this is utterly beyond his ken. A man who sits intimately with God, face to face — why would we expect him to engage in petty cajoling, in spinning images to try to sell “the program” to his people? Yet for a nation in transition, about to attain its great promise, and thus to take on a new identity, communication is called for. Will the elders, those who stand next in line for the leadership of Israel, learn not Moses’ wisdom, but his failure? Moses’ helplessness is the great comeuppance. This is exactly what Moses warned God at the burning bush: “I am not a man of words.”
The shock waves continue to reverberate. As Moses withdraws, revolt shreds the bonds of tribe and family, and others rush to step into the vacuum. Challenged by others’ words, Moses is unable to respond. Crisis of leadership — a repeated theme in the book of Numbers — expands like a malignancy until the mutiny spurs Moses to wrathful vengeance, and even God seems to go mad, lashing out wantonly and slaughtering indiscriminately with a deadly plague.
Who are these men who challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership? Korach, a Levite, together with Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, followed by two hundred and fifty of the leaders of the nation — men of name. Korach asserts his claim to leadership as Moses and Aaron’s cousin. Dathan and Abiram assail Moses’ failure to achieve the national objective, while the Men of Name are the foremost citizens of the nation. From a political perspective, the revolt is led by a royal pretender, seconded by men campaigning for the popular vote, and contested by those who see themselves as the natural ruling aristocracy. For all the public utterances reported in this portion, there is little actual communication. The only ones who actually make a point are Dathan and Abiram (16:13-14). “You brought us up… to die in the wilderness, and now you want to continue to lord it over us? And you haven’t brought us into the land flowing with milk and honey…!” And still, Moses remains incapable of engaging with those who confront him. Incapable, to the point of panic. To the point of murderous rage.
Attentive readers will have seen this coming.
As the Torah listed to the names of those sent to spy out the land (13:4 ff): “Of the tribe of Reuben, Shamuah son of Zacur; of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat son of Hori; of the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Jephunneh…” did we notice that the tribe of Levi was not represented? There must have been great anticipation as the men marched off to scout out the land, and great fanfare on their return. But after they were struck down by God, the Israelites became painfully aware that the tribe of Levi — Moses and Aaron’s family — was never at risk.
This week’s reading opens with two genealogies (16:1): “And Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohat, son of Levi — and Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, (as well as On, son of Peleth), all descendants of Reuben — betook themselves…” Korach’s confederates are descended from Reuben, Jacob’s first-born, who lost his birthright because he failed at the task of leadership. Reuben failed to prevent the brothers from harming Joseph and then failed to save him from the well. He failed to take charge when the brothers traveled to buy grain in Egypt, failed to act as head of the family when they returned to Egypt with Benjamin, and did not step forward when Joseph threatened to take Benjamin prisoner. Reuben was not equal to the tasks demanded of the firstborn. The inheritance of the firstborn was given to Joseph, while the leadership of the family was ultimately assigned to Levi. Reuben’s descendants are uniquely positioned to criticize Moses for his shortcomings. They have also have nursed their resentment over generations, obsessed with the slight to their ancestor’s honor. (Indeed, on the eve of Israel’s finally taking possession of the Promised Land (Num. ch.32) the Reubenites will disassociate themselves not only from the nation, but from God’s covenant, refusing to enter the land together with the other tribes.)
“You have taken too much!” says Korach (16:3). “Since the whole congregation are all holy — and God is in their midst — why do you elevate yourselves above the community of God?” Korach is self-righteous, an iconoclast. But there is nothing convincing in is attack. He claims Aaron’s position by arguing “you’re no better than I am!”
Dathan and Abiram level accurate criticism at Moses, but they then turn away and display their anger for all to see. Meanwhile, the two hundred and fifty “princes of the congregation, those summoned at the appointed times — men of name…” (16:2) do not even speak. Everyone knows why they are there. They stand for the hostility and grief of the nation: Moses put the leaders of the people in harm’s way, while shielding his own family. The “men of name” know that they could be next.
The calamitous outcome of the spies’ expedition has shaken the people’s faith in Moses. But a nation does not stand or fall on a single outcome. Even a devastating loss such as the failure to enter the Promised Land — even a signal failure such as Moses’ inaction — does not put an end to the people, nor to the dream of nationhood.
What Dathan and Abiram charge is true, and Korach’s claim to family lineage is plain. Yet they are no leaders, but mere opportunists. They mislead in the way of all dishonest iconoclasts, because failures of leadership do not undermine the core truth of leadership. If anything, the measure of leadership is to be taken at the nadir, on the heels of defeat. And the people have failed Moses as well, for it is their task to shoulder their own burden within society. To accept their role in the nation’s failure. President Eisenhower said the true leader gives credit to others, and takes blame himself.
The Torah’s model of leadership also demands wise and dedicated followers. Just as Moses must bear the people’s failures, his shortcomings are the responsibility of all. Up until the spies’ return, the people followed Moses blindly. Now their own weaknesses leave them open to resentment. If a society is only as strong as its weakest link, leaders are only as strong as their weakest followers. A commanding officer cries “After me!” and rushes into combat. What if there are no troops to follow?
The confrontation becomes a duel to the death as the tree of resentment yields its shriveled, bitter fruit. Moses, unable to turn the tide with rhetoric, invokes God’s wrath, calling down retribution on Korach. Is violence, in fact, “the only language they understand”? Or is this yet more failure of leadership?
Moses challenges Korach to a divine duel, and Korach and his cohort resolutely appear, bearing incense on their smoking fire-pans. The Torah invokes our horror as they prepare to re-enact the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu. It is clear once Moses utters the challenge that Korach and his men will perish. Now not Korach, but Moses appears to panic, calling down destruction on the rebels, he recoils in horror as all Heaven breaks loose.
“I will destroy them all!” says God (16:20), threatening not only the rebellious group, but the extinction of the nation. Moses and Aaron panic: “Could it be that one man sins, and You are enraged at the entire assembly?” (16:22) The earth opens, swallowing Korach, Dathan and Abiram, and all their families. Moses intends this to be the end of the matter. But a moment later, fire consumes Korach’s two hundred and fifty followers, then God goes on a rampage, striking down Israelites right and left until, in a chilling moment, Aaron brings the plague to a halt, waving his own desperate offering of incense “among the dead and among the living,” (17:13).
Perhaps the hardest lesson a leader must learn is how to fail and yet not give up hope. To remain determined and committed to the task. The people must also learn this. Assigning blame for failures is the greatest failure of all. The failure of the spies is Moses’ own failure — perhaps even God’s. It is also a failure of the nation as a whole. But just as the nation yearns to continue forward, the task of the leader is to continue to lead. We can no more replace Moses with Dathan and Abiram, than we could replace God with a calf of molten metal. Leaders dare not to step down when plans do not come together — not even when they themselves fail. This is exactly the argument Moses brings to God at the incident of the Golden Calf: “The people You chose,” says Moses, “Yes they will err, yes they will fail; but You must hold fast to the vision. Because,” Moses tells God, “if You abandon us, then what was all this for?”
As Moses continues to learn the lessons of leadership, he models leadership for the next generation of leaders. Perhaps someone will watch. Perhaps someone will learn. If not in this generation, perhaps soon. If not sooner, then perhaps later.
There are moments that make leaders. Even if it takes forty years.
Yours for a better world.