Korach – Lessons in Conflict and Leadership

Korach, Moses’ cousin challenges Moses and Aaron’s leadership.

I went on a wonderful sabbatical for 5-1/2 months and have been sharing the sense of renewal and transformative learning I experienced in those months. And while so much feels different to me – the state of our country, the world and our community feels even more tenuous than when my sabbatical began.

The polarization, fraying connections and anger in our country continues to deepen each passing day. In the words of Brene Brown in her book Braving the Wilderness: “We have sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared.” She argues what we are experiencing is in fact a spiritual crisis. I agree and believe that the best of religion – seeing the divine in each other, finding community common purpose and connection – even with those whom we disagree, embracing a culture of sacred dispute are the spiritual tools we need to begin to bring small rays of light to the spiritual crisis that exists.

The potential of communities to break apart is part of history stretching back to the creation of the world. This morning’s portion begins with the Israelites plunged into communal chaos. Korach, Moses’ cousin challenges Moses and Aaron’s leadership. It is a complicated text that can be read in many different ways – but the rabbis have traditionally used it to understand lessons in conflict, power and community – and the danger and characteristics of communal manipulation. According to this read of the story, Korach seems interested in gaining power at any price. Note (p. 861, vs. 3) that he directs his protests against Moses and Aaron. He probably doesn’t like that his first cousin Aaron was named High Priest – he felt it should be his job. As most politically savvy people do, Korach played on people’s discontent. (vs. 3) “You have gone too far!” he said to Moses and Aaron. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” He plays the populist card – claiming Moses is in this for power and prestige. He speaks the language of equality – but what he really wants is personal power. He knows the language that will work – even if it is untrue!

Korach assembles allies – finding two other disaffected groups: the Reubenites, Dathan and Aviram, and “250 Israelites who were men of rank within the community, representatives at the assembly, and famous.” The Reubenites were aggrieved that as descendants of Jacob’s firstborn, they had no special leadership roles. According to Ibn Ezra, the 250 “men of rank” were upset that, after the sin of the Golden Calf, leadership had passed from the firstborn within each tribe to the single tribe of Levi.

Next, he and his fellow rebels mount an impressive campaign of fake news. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues we can infer this indirectly. When Moses says to God, “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them” (p. 862, vs. 15), it is clear that he has been accused of just that – exploiting his office for personal gain. When he says, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my own idea” (vs. 28) it is equally clear that he has been accused of representing his own decisions as the will and word of God.

And then, Dathan and Aviram accuse Moses of what is their own made up truth that is the opposite of what he has done. Rabbi Sacks calls this post-truth claim: (p. 862, vs. 13). “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you want to lord it over us!This is the most callous speech in the Torah. It combines false nostalgia for Egypt (a “land flowing with milk and honey”!), blaming Moses for the report of the spies – you have brought us here to kill us – these are outrageous, blatant lies.

At that point Moses offers for them to speak directly and they refuse! That reflects our community right now. We would rather speak at and criticize – instead of speaking to directly.

Desire for power, lies that disparage and delegitimize unfairly, accusing someone of just the opposite of their actions – this is what happens during times of discontent and fear. It grows worse when we stop lose connection to one another and stop seeing each other as humans. It is a spiritual crisis.

Our sages teach that there is another way. In Pirkei Avot, they teach that the alternative to the dispute of Korach and his followers – which is about power and victory is the dispute between the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai – which is about truth. We learn in the Turmud (Eruvin 13b) that there was a dispute that lasted three years, where the School of Hillel said that the law was one way and the School of Shammai said the law was another. Finally a voice came from heaven – “The teachings of both are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the School of Hillel.” If they are both the words of the living God, why is the law according to Hillel? Because they were kindly and humble, and they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and even mentioned the teachings of the School of Shammai before their own.” The text is really about how we have disputes. It isn’t about power, or even being right. It is about listening, knowing that those with whom you disagree have validity and value. It is the belief that disagreement helps shed new light on the issue we are discussing – sometimes we might even change our opinion! They went at it for three years and stayed connected! They taught the truths of their opponents. In Yevamot 14b elaborates that although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed they did not abstain from marrying women of the families of the other. The Talmud explains that this teaches that they showed love and friendship towards one another. They stayed connected. They loved people with whom they disagreed.

Can we do that? Can we stay connected to those with whom we disagree? When we argue can we move beyond the desire for victory and proving how wrong the person we disagree with is? Can we really listen, explore, value and even learn? Brene Brown brings a definition of civility for the Institute for Civility in Government that is exactly this Talmud text: “Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. We listen. We respect. We stay connected.” In religious language – we continue to see the divinity in fellow human. We turn away from rhetoric which shames, belittles, demeans and mischaracterizes. We hold onto our integrity and passion while resisting going into winner/loser mode. We desperately need this now!

It is hard to do this! It requires patience, generosity of spirit, breaking out of the mode of needing to be right. It is hard because the areas we disagree about are so vital and have high stakes. But is has to happen if we are to prevent our community and country from fracturing. And it can be done! In catching up with what happened while I was away, the teacher of the Zayen class shared an incredible moment where rather than arguing without really listening and raising voices that had been happening, labeling negatively and attacking personally amidst disagreement – the class listened to the stories of one another that informed their opinions. It changed things for a moment and taught what can be. Hopefully the moment will continue to grow and ripple.

We’re in a spiritual crisis. A spiritual response demands that we maintain our belief in our inextricable human connection. When our connection to each other defines our essence, then compassion and love pull us away from the bunkers to which we retreat. Ultimately in this portion, community begins to slowly heal. They find a shared purpose – they bring their gifts to create an altar. They unite to find something beyond themselves. Let’s walk in the path of Hillel and Shammai. Let’s find our connections and shared purpose – like that which emerges at the end of this portion. Let’s argue passionately – but with respect. Let’s be champions opposing the rhetoric of hatred and division in our world, country and community. Let’s walk in the path of Hillel and Shammai, and not in the path of Korach and his followers. Slowly our acts too will ripple. Shabbat Shalom.