“Populism is a political style that appeals to the general public’s support and sympathy by using simple, catchy messages. The messages of populism target the social and economic concerns of the public, and tend to offer magical solutions to fateful problems.” (Wikipedia)
Parashat Korach is a story about one of the first populist politicians in history, and certainly the most famous biblical populist. As the cousin of Moses, Korach was bitter that he was removed from a leadership position and was angry at Moses that the priesthood was given to Aaron, Moses’s brother, and not to him, despite him being the eldest son of the family in the tribe of Levi:
“Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?’” (Numbers 16:1-3)
Korach rebukes Moses and Aaron, saying: "You have gone too far! … Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” or in other words, "You have taken too much power, you are not the only ones who are holy here, do not patronize us, there are others here among the people who can also lead!" A populist claim par excellence, whose goal is to take the leadership from the elites and pass it onto the people, or in this case, to Korach himself.
Does Korach use the guise of democracy and equality to undermine Moses and seek power and control? Or, before we convict Korach, is there any truth to his claims? The decentralization of power and the division of positions among coalition partners are important elements in creating proper leadership. Does Korach accuse Moses and Aaron of letting their power ‘get to their head?’ Is he saying that their power is too centralized? That they’ve been in power too long? These are dangerous phenomena for society during biblical times, which continue to resonate in our time.
"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 Korach and all his congregation." (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot)
The commentaries argue that "a dispute for the sake of Heaven" is a dispute that is held in order to strive for truth, and not simply for the sake of fighting and defeating the opponent. From the harsh punishment of Korach and his congregation, we understand that this is Korach’s sin: His dispute with Moses was based on hostility and hatred.
They did not act for ideological reasons, nor for the purpose of making a substantive decision on a critical issue, but rather to rebel against Moses's leadership and bring about his defeat.
But wait, maybe we can still learn something from Korach: was he trying to warn that power can be blinding? That leadership does not grant privileges? That opposition is important to democracy and politicians from other parties are not necessarily traitors and anti-Israel? Is what was true during biblical times true today?
Korach, who understood that he could not overcome his adversaries alone, joined with partners who were also fed up with Moses. He forged an alliance with Dotan and Aviram and the Rubenites, who were angry at not having a stake in leadership even though Ruben was Jacob’s firstborn son. These allies joined with the 250 chiefs of the tribes – probably the firstborn sons of each family – who were angry that after the sin of the golden calf, their positions had been given to the Levites. In this Parasha, a warning is given that is as relevant today as it was then: alliances forged in the name of a struggle against a shared enemy are not as resilient as those forged in the name of a shared ideology. In Israel, political parties formed out of collective gripe against existing leadership are at risk of being swallowed (metaphorically, of course) if they lack a shared basis of ideology and values.
Populism is the politics of anger (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). It is a phenomenon that gathers momentum especially in times when there is broad lack of faith among the people towards their leaders. Parashat Korach takes place at a time when the people know that they will not be entering the land of Israel. This is a time when the people do not have much hope or much to lose. This environment is fertile ground for populism and upheaval of leadership. Moreover, Dotan and Aviram even spread a rumor that things were better in Egypt, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” It turns out that fake news isn’t such a new phenomenon.
Moses’s trial in Parashat Korach is a success – God grants his request, the earth opens up and swallows the rebels. But was this truly a success? Moses’s strong-armed tactic is, in the end, an absolute failure. The next day, the people go back to complaining more than ever against Moses. It turns out that power is not the solution. A more fitting remedy is diplomacy, discussion, dialogue and partnership.
This summer, as Israel finds itself going back to the polls, let us try to remember which disputes are “for the sake of heaven,” and which are “not to endure.” The problem is not about having such disputes, but rather the goal of them. Is the goal merely to win, to defeat the opponent, or is there a will to seek truth, to solve problems, and to pursue higher goals? On this electoral go-around, let us focus on the important issues facing Israeli society and the State of Israel at home and abroad, and not in spats of ego and status.
Hillel did not win out over Shammai because he was always right or because he was stronger or more aggressive, but rather because “they were agreeable and forbearing, and would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai over their own statements.” (Eruvin 13b:11). In other words, the Halakha was determined according to Hillel because they were humble, and respected the minority opinion.
Let us call on our leaders to be cautious, to put ego and jealousy aside. Let us have leaders who view themselves as public servants, not pursuers of power. Because without such caution, we are bound to be swallowed up internally, much like Korach and his congregation.
Noga Brenner Samia is Deputy Director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.