The founder of the Order of the Arrow, Dr. E. Urner Goodman, used to say that leaders could either lead up or down. In parsha Korach this week, we read about leaders who led down – in more ways than one.
Korach is a member of one of the most distinguished families among the Children of Israel. He is a member of the tribe of Levi, and the cousin of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Together with three members of the tribe of Reuben – Datan, Aviram and On – he begins complaining about the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Their complaint is that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much leadership. Korach also complains Aaron’s family should not be priests. He recruits 250 “men of renown” who are not Levites to join him.
Korach plays on the people’s sadness that they will not be allowed to enter Canaan because they believed the false report of the ten Meraglim (spies) who said the Canaanites were giants and thus the Israelites would not be able to conquer the land. Not only does he stir up discontent, he lies by complaining that Moses has led the people away from Egypt, calling it “a land flowing with milk and honey” – he describes the land where they were enslaved by using the same words that God uses to describe the Land of Israel!
Then Moses gives the rebels a challenge. Tomorrow they are to each bring a fire pan with incense on it to the Tent of Meeting. Moses and Aaron will do the same.
It is a dramatic scene the next day. All the people (called the “assembly”) come and the Shechinah (the cloud that represents God’s glory) appears. God tells Moses and Aaron to stand aside and watch as all the people are destroyed. Once again, Moses intervenes on behalf of the people, asking “shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire assembly?” God tells Moses to have the people move away from the tents of Korach, Dathan and Aviram. (On had left the rebellion, at the urging of his wise wife.) God then causes a pit to open in the ground, and it swallows Korach, Dathan and Aviram and their families. The 250 men of renown who followed Korach and brought pans of incense are consumed by fire.
Physically, Korach led his followers down to the inner reaches of the Earth. But he led them down spiritually as well. Many of our rabbis say Korach was jealous that although he was a Levi, he did not have an important position. The rabbis also explain Korach’s followers from the tribe of Reuben were jealous because Reuben’s importance as the firstborn had been lost to the tribe of Levi, which exhibited leadership by not worshipping idols in Egypt or the Golden Calf. Had Korach, Dathan, Aviram and On been true leaders, they would have only been concerned with the welfare of those they led instead of their own status.
In the midst of rebellion led by Korach, the bad leader, we see true leadership exemplified by Moses. Though many questioned his authority, Moses helped the people by imploring God not to punish anyone but those causing the trouble. In the face of someone bringing the people down, Moses led upward.