Must Our Leaders Be Popular?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Korach, describes the revolt that threatened the authority of Moshe and the Halachik (Legal) system he oversaw. This story appears immediately after that of the Spies recorded in Shelach; which raises the question, are these two events essentially connected?

The answer to this question is the subject of a dispute between two great Torah giants, the Even Ezra and the Ramban.

The Even Ezra denies any intrinsic relationship between the Meraglim (the Spies) and Korach’s Rebellion; and even maintains that these incidents are not recorded in their chronological order! According to him, the revolt of Korach had taken place earlier, before the debacle of the Spies, and is only recorded here.

The view of the Even Ezra, is that the uprising of Korach was motivated by the changes that Moshe instituted in the administration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Originally, the services there were to be conducted by the firstborn males (Bechorim), regardless of tribal affiliation. However, as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem decided to transfer this assignment to Aaron and his male descendants, the Kohanim (Priests); and the secondary Temple responsibilities, to members of the Levite tribe. This event took place prior to the matter of the Spies, and therefore was not in any way connected with it. But the story was not publicized until the Sedra (Torah portion) following Shelach.

The Ramban, however, vehemently disagrees and asserts that the events recorded here are in their proper historical order. He concurs that Korach’s revolt was triggered by the appointment of Aaron and the Levites, but asserts that the actual rebellion did not break out at that time.

The reason is that Korach was a highly astute operator, who realized that the time was not ripe for his planned insurrection. He was aware that at that point Moshe’s popularity was at its zenith. Moshe was then riding high on a string of successes. This began with the Exodus from Egypt and was followed by the utter destruction of the Egyptian military forces at the Reed Sea, as a result of which the Jews “believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe” (Shemot 14:31).

Moshe then gathered the people at Mt. Sinai, where they witnessed Hashem their True Redeemer, communicate the Aseret HaDibrot (Decalogue) to them, through him. It is unfortunate that this was followed by the great tragedy of the “Golden Calf” which brought the nation to the brink of destruction. But, here again, Moshe rose to the occasion, and his unique prayer salvaged the situation and Bnei Yisrael (The People of Israel) were spared. Under Moshe’s oversight the nation successfully completed the construction of the Sanctuary (Mishkan) and their hearts were filled with supreme joy when a fire descended from Heaven to consume the special sacrifices on the Altar which marked its inauguration.

At that moment, says the Ramban, all of Israel regarded Moshe as an incomparable leader, who was totally dedicated to their well-being. Had anyone risen up against him to depose him, he would have been firmly squashed. Korach was no fool; and calmly, biding his time, he waited for the inevitable moment when the popularity of the great leader would wane.

And wane it did. Just as they were about to begin the trek to the promised land, the Mitonenim (Grumblers) groaned about a host of complaints which were “evil in ‘the ears’ of Hashem” (BaMidbar 11:1). As a reaction, “Hashem heard and His wrath flared, and a fire of Hashem burned against them, and it consumed at the edge of the camp” (BaMidbar 11:1). Once again, Moshe prayed to Hashem and the fire died down.

This was followed by the seemingly inexplicable outbreak of crying and complaining about the cuisine they were receiving in the Wilderness. This was so vexing that Moshe begged Hashem to relieve him of the leadership responsibility; or at least provide him with other leaders who could share the burden with him. Hashem did provide the people with great quantities of quail, but He also “…struck a mighty blow against the people” (BaMidbar 11:33). Retribution for the great sin of dissatisfaction and complaining was swift and harsh. The morale of the people began to plummet.

But the worst blow came in the wake of the sin of the Spies. The decree that the Nation, who had exited Egypt, would not merit to enter the Holy Land; but would die out during a forty-year wandering in the Wilderness, filled the people with great sadness. And, says the Ramban, this effectuated a change in the popularity of Moshe. Not surprisingly, they blamed him for not entreating Hashem to forgive them their terrible sin. Apparently, the Nation was unaware that Hashem had wanted to utterly destroy them for their outrageous behavior, and only spared them because of the prayerful intervention of Moshe. But even Moshe could not spare them from the forty-year interruption of the conquest of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).

And Korach sensing the shift in “public opinion” decided it was time to strike and launched his rebellion. He accused Moshe of seeking to amass power by appointing his brother to be in charge of the Temple Service; while he continued to function as the leading prophet, the expositor of Torah and the supreme political authority. According to the Rabbis, Korach and his co-conspirators also confronted Moshe with Halachik Sheeilot (Legal Questions) and ridiculed his answers, which were based on the Oral Law.

To understand the full egregiousness of Korach’s insurrection, we must turn to the words of the Rambam. In Laws of Teshuva 3:8 he states:

“Three classes are considered as (Kofrim) deniers of the Torah. One who says the Torah is not of divine origin–even one verse or one word. If he says that Moshe said it of himself–is regarded as a denier of Torah; likewise, he who denies its interpretation (i.e., The Oral Law transmitted from Hashem to Moshe) and disparages its teachers… (i.e., The Masters of the Oral Law).”

The Jewish doctrine of Divine Revelation includes two components: belief in the Divine origin of Scripture (Written Law) as well the Divine origin of the Oral Law, i.e., the body of interpretations and elucidations by which the Mitzvot (Commandments) of the Torah are practiced and fulfilled. Thus, man is not free to read scripture and to decide for himself how it is to be understood and implemented. Could anyone deduce from the injunction against “work” on Shabbat the manifold prohibited forms of “labor” and many other activities one must desist from on that holy day?

To obtain an in-depth mastery of the body of knowledge contained in the Oral Law is a daunting task; only a few unique individuals are able to accomplish this mastery at any time. These great Rabbis are known as the “Masters of the Oral Law”, and they derive their authority from Hashem. One is obligated to “believe in them”–not in the sense that they are infallible–but that they are entrusted to provide the legitimate explanation of G-d’s Word.

Thus, when Korach and his cohort asked Moshe: “Does a house filled with Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls) require a Mezuzah?” They opined that it does not; but the actual Halacha (Law) derived from the Oral Law given at Mount Sinai, maintains that it does.

It is a great sin to disparage our holy Torah scholars. They are a unique breed of people who have been chosen by Hashem to teach Torah, and decide the Halacha in the most complicated cases. Entering into conflict and confrontation with them is to rebel against the Creator.

This was the sin of Korach and his co-conspirators. They wanted to depose Hashem’s chosen Prophet and dissociate the revealed Written Scriptures from their intrinsic and indivisible attachment to the Oral Law, as taught by Moshe and his disciples throughout the ages. They could not bring themselves to declare; “Moshe VeTorato Emet (Moshe and his Torah are True). (Sanhedrin 110a)”

The story of Korach is especially relevant to the current state of the Jewish People. Our task is to embrace our fellow Jews and seek to draw them closer to Judaism. To do so effectively, we must free ourselves of unwarranted personal desires for glory. It takes a certain level of humility to subordinate oneself to all the requirements of the Halachik (Torah Legal) system. One is often confronted with a great temptation to reinterpret the Torah in a manner which seems appealing to the contemporary moral outlook. Indeed, many rabbis seek to increase their popularity and influence by catering to the emotional preferences of their congregants.

It is vitally important for all of us to cultivate an attitude of respect for the special status of the contemporary Masters of the Oral Law. It is equally significant for all Torah scholars to display respect for each other and all their fellow Jews. The tragic plague, which took the lives of twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva, was triggered by their failure to “display honor one to another.” Rabbi Soloveitchik surmised that while they most probably did Teshuva (repentance), it did not help, for this sin entailed a Chillul Hashem (Desecration of G-d’s Name), that Hashem does not totally forgive until death. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:4)

The Jewish world today, especially in Israel, is composed of both religious (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations) and non-religious Jews. Our ultimate goal is to facilitate the return of the Jewish People to the proper observance of Judaism, following both the Written and Oral Laws. To achieve this, we must renounce any desire for power and resist the temptation to disparage others whose beliefs differ from ours. We must employ great wisdom, humility, and compassion–by modeling for our brethren–a manner of behavior that is irresistibly appealing and inspires emulation. Our Rabbis say on the words “VaYichan Sham Yisrae”l (And Yisrael camped [singular]) (Shemot 19:2) that at Mt. Sinai the Jews were as “one people with one heart” (Shemot 19:2). May we merit once again to reach that exalted status.

Shabbat Shalom.