“Givers and Takers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Korach, we read of Korach’s rebellion against G-d and Moses, and the devastating end that Korach meets when the earth opens and swallows him together with his cohorts.

Parashat Korach opens with a most revealing verse. Numbers 16:1 states, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן יִצְהָר בֶּן קְהָת בֶּן לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן, Korach, the son Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, took himself, along with Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.

The opening words in parashat Korach, וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח–“Vah’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach took, are problematic, since there is no object of the verb, “to take.” Recognizing this problem, Rashi explains that the expression, “Vah’yee’kach Korach” means that “Korach took himself,”– he separated himself off to one side to be apart from the assembly of Israel, in order to raise objections regarding the priesthood.

Alternatively, Rashi explains that “Vah’yee’kach Korach,” Korach took, means that through his passionate words of persuasion Korach drew to himself the heads of the courts who were among the people, to support him in his rebellion.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his essay, “Leaders who Give and Leaders who Take,” brilliantly highlights the profound differences between Moses, the leader who gives, and Korach, the leader who takes.

Although Moses was chosen by G-d to be the leader of Israel, he himself was most reluctant to assume the assignment. In fact, Moses pleads with G-d (Exodus 4:13), שְׁלַח נָא בְּיַד תִּשְׁלָח, send anyone but me! G-d, however, refuses to take no for an answer.

It was definitely not because Moses was afraid of challenges that he declined to be the leader of Israel. To the contrary, we see that when Moses was a young prince in the house of Pharaoh surrounded with many luxuries and great opportunities that could have been his as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he refused to adopt for himself this opulent lifestyle. Instead of thinking only of himself, Moses goes out to his brothers, to help them in their travails. There he stands up for his brethren, endangering his life in the process.

The Midrash paints an entirely different picture of Korach. Because he was a Levite, Korach was freed from serving as a slave and instead assumed a rather soft job in Pharaoh’s palace. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15 relates that Korach served in Pharaoh’s house and was in charge of the keys to Pharaoh’s treasury.

In contrast, we see later, at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the true giving character of Moses. Of all the Israelites in Egypt it was Moses who personally assumed responsibility for the removal of Joseph’s bones from Egypt, as Joseph had made the people promise (Genesis 50:25), “You shall take my bones up from this place.”

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 110a states that Korach was also busy, searching for the reputed treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt. Apparently, the great wealth that Korach amassed did not come from his own labors, but from the monies that belonged to others.

While Moses fulfilled the wish of the deceased Joseph, who could not even thank him, let alone reward him, Korach was busy searching for money, gold and silver. Korach indeed was a man on the take (“Vah’yee’kach Korach,” and Korach took).

Not only was Korach on the take for money, which apparently did not sufficiently satisfy him, he was also on the take for honor, and sought desperately to garner authority for himself.

The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, Numbers 16:19 states that Korach gathered all the people to the door of the Tabernacle, seducing them to follow his rebellion with bribes from his wealth that he had improperly taken from two of the treasures that Joseph had hidden in Egypt.

The Targum Yonatan maintains that Korach, with his massive fortune, sought to have Moses and Aaron and their influence removed from this world. The Talmud, in Eruvin 54b documents that Moses and Aaron, the greatest educators and teachers of Torah, expended great effort to personally teach Torah to their entire generation. This, however, meant little to Korach, who was obsessed with power and authority. By challenging and scheming to defeat Moses, Korach was prepared to destroy all the Torah and education of the generation.

The great Moses was the complete opposite. When Moses’ authority as leader was challenged by Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:27-28), who prophesied that “Moses will die and Joshua will lead the people into the land,” Moses was not threatened by the challenge. Instead, he responds, Numbers 11:29, וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל עַם השׁם נְבִיאִים, “I wish that all the nation of G-d were prophets.” Similarly, when he insisted that G-d forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:32), Moses was prepared to have his name erased from the Torah if G-d would not agree.

Rabbi Filber cites the Netziv who says that the entire world is divided up between givers and takers. The Netziv explains that the verse, Deuteronomy 10:12, מָה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ, כִּי אִם לְיִרְאָה אֶת השׁם, What does the L-rd your G-d ask of you but to fear G-d, is a specific directive to leaders who deal with communal issues and are likely to do things that may favor themselves materially, and lead them to look for honor. A great communal leader, says the Netziv, is not only valued for the good deeds he performs and the meaningful Torah that he transmits, but specifically for how he relates to those who oppose him and those who refuse to fawn before him. A leader must always recognize, says the Netziv, that G-d Who looks at the paths of all human beings is constantly watching from above.

The great leader is a giver not a taker. Unfortunately, Korach never seemed to appreciate that vital message or absorb that critical value. As a result, Korach wound up seducing hundreds and thousands of his followers, leading them into the earth and to ultimate destruction.

May you be blessed.