“The Rebellion Against the Lonely Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of the infamous rebellion of Korach, who together with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, On the son of Peleth of the tribe of Reuben, and two hundred and fifty distinguished leaders of Israel, challenged Moses’ authority.

In their arrogance, they confronted Moses and Aaron, saying to them, Numbers 16:3, “Rav lah’chem, kee chohl ha’ay’dah koo’lahm k’doh’sheem, oov’toh’chahm Hashem, oo’mah’doo’ah tit’nah’s’oo ahl k’hal Hashem,” You have taken too much for yourselves! For the entire assembly of Israel are holy, and the L-rd is among them. Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of the L-rd?

When Moses heard their challenge, he fell on his face.

The fate of Korach and his cohort is well known. The earth opens and swallows him and his entire assembly.

Over the years, we have written about the varied reasons for Korach’s rebellion, including Korach’s desire for higher position, his antipathy toward Moses and Aaron who he felt had assumed too much authority for themselves, and the fact that he had been passed over for the leadership of the tribe of Levi (See Korach 5772-2012).

Dr. Yisrael (Shay) Eldad, in his brilliant Hegyonot Mikrah, offers fascinating insights into each week’s Torah portion.

Dr. Eldad’s Hebrew writing is exalted and poetic. Unfortunately, his volume on Torah insights has never been translated to English. Rather than try to present a verbatim translation of his fascinating insights into the fate of Moses, I have attempted to paraphrase parts of Dr. Eldad’s essay.

Had Moses asked the people if they truly wished to leave Egypt, the majority of the people would have resoundingly answered, “No.” After all, the peoples’ only desire was to be relieved of their backbreaking enslavement and burdensome taxes, which the Egyptians had inflicted upon them. Had Moses proposed that he be chosen as the people’s leader, the majority would have again responded in the negative. After all, when Moses killed the Egyptian and brought about the plagues on Egypt, Pharaoh only increased the people’s burdensome work. Clearly, Moses took the people out of Egypt against their will.

Furthermore, Moses required the people to observe the Torah and a host of burdensome commandments. He also took them out of a developed and settled land and led them into a wilderness. While he gave them Manna from heaven, the heavenly food was precisely measured by amount, water was limited, and he refused to allow the people to “entertain” themselves with an innocuous (Golden) calf. Not only that, but as a stammerer and a stutterer, the people found it difficult to listen to his spoken word.

While it is true that Moses was scrupulously honest and never took so much as a donkey from any of the people, it is also true that he never really had a single close relationship among the millions of Israelites. He was very much a stranger to the people. In contrast to the other Israelites, Moses grew up in the House of Pharaoh and discovered his G-d in Sinai. He did not spend his formative years together with his brothers in the Land of Goshen, and never endured slavery. Had he made himself into a god, demanded that the people bow down to him, and carry him on their shoulders, perhaps he would have endeared himself to them. But, he was too modest, and his humility profoundly distanced him from the people. Most Israelites were actually afraid of Moses and embittered his life. We do not find a trace of love for him. Even his own sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, speak against him. Perhaps only his “lad,” Joshua, was truly close to him.

In contrast, the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were always greatly beloved by the people and are revered until this day. The people smile with affection when the patriarchs and matriarchs are remembered. The people were also infatuated with the heroic David, and, to this day, sing that David is forever alive. But Moses? It is not even known where Moses is buried, and no one ever claimed he is alive and eternal, even though his teachings are certainly alive and eternal. Hence, Moses survives as well. Perhaps Moses the man is off-putting because he spoke to G-d face-to-face and the light of his face shone and continues to shine for the People of Israel until this day. Even those with sensitive hearts, who would be attracted to him, are afraid to approach Moses because of his great sanctity.

Moses was always lonely in his greatness. When he spoke to the people, before G-d, his face was gentle and soft. But when he spoke to the people directly, his face was transformed into stone. Perhaps some will suggest that Moses had a split personality? G-d forbid! Rather, as scripture clearly states, he wore a mask on his face because the people could not bear the sanctified light that emanated from his face.

It is never good for man to be alone, but a prophet is always alone. If that is the case, then it is not at all good for a human being to be a prophet. Amen. It is not good.

And if all the prophets “tasted” both bitter and sweet simultaneously, how much more so the Father and the Greatest of all Prophets. Clearly, the taste of bitter and sweet are the source of his authority.

In contrast, the authority of the forefathers was in their biological contributions to the people. Fathers are beloved, simply for being fathers. A king, who is always far and removed from his subjects, is loved because he comes to his kingship from the field, from the donkeys, from the people and from the battlefields. There is no need to say that a king, who has been chosen to serve as monarch, is beloved. His courageous soldiers love him. His friends, and those who selected him, love him.

But a prophet, from where does his authority come? He is not chosen by the people or by his friends. It is not due to his wealth, his comeliness, his might, or the articulateness of his speech that a prophet wins the hearts of the people. A prophet must listen to a voice [the voice of the Al-mighty] that speaks to him, but the people never hear that voice. That tenuous link is the source of his authority.

This is the modest man, Moses. The lonely man, Moses. Only the lad, Joshua, clung to him and embraced him.

This may be the reason why the people found it so easy and convenient to repeatedly rebel against Moses and his leadership, and why Korach presumed to reject his authority.

Despite all the existential challenges, the lonely man, Moses, remains with us, even after he is gone. As scripture testifies (Deuteronomy 34:10), “V’lo kahm nah’vee ohd b’Yisrael k’Moshe,” No other prophet ever arose in Israel like Moses–and there never will.

May the memory of our Master, Moses, be blessed.

May you be blessed.