This year has been full of leadership challenges in the UK, Israel and many other countries. In parshat Korach, the children of Israel experience their first challenge to Moses’ leadership with a failed coup d’état by Korach and his 250 men.
His rebellion starts with a populist slogan: ‘For the entire assembly, all of them, are holy… so why do you [Moses and Aaron] exalt yourselves over the congregation?’ (Bamidbar 16:3).
He appeals to the innate sense of justice and equality that has been the hallmark of the Jewish people and uses it to claim that Moses and Aaron had usurped the leadership and turned it into a family business. The irony was that superficial arguments about the greater good for the many not the few can often mask the selfish ambitions of a demagogue. Korach advocated replacing them with himself, with no claim to legitimacy other than his ability to whip the people into a frenzy. This approach is referred to by Rabbi Lord Sacks as the politics of the angry and “the belief that a strong leader can solve everything, and that is the road that leads to tyranny”.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:17) brings Korach’s dispute with his band of men as a classic example of a machloket, disagreement not for the sake of Heaven. They discern Korach’s impure motives were the source of his downfall. From the Mishnah wording, it is evident Korach’s dispute was not just with Moses and Aaron, but was endemic within his party too, as is expected with someone who is motivated to lord over others. It is any wonder Korach and his band met such a dramatic downfall?
Rabbi Jonny Roodyn is education director of Jewish Futures Trust