Hierarchy and Politics: The Never-Ending Story
Family Edition

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The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

Korach understood the three ground rules for rebellion. First, you have to stir up people’s discontents and make it seem as if you are on their side, against the current leader. “You have gone too far!” he said to Moshe and Aharon. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Bamidbar 16:3).

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Second, assemble allies. Korach himself was a Levite. His complaint was that Moshe had appointed his brother Aharon as High Priest. He felt that as Moshe’s cousin – son of Yitzhar, the brother of Moshe and Aharon’s father Amram – the position should have gone to him. He thought it unfair that both leadership roles should have gone to a single family within the clan. Korach could not expect much support from within his own tribe. The other Levites had nothing to gain by deposing Aharon. So he instead found allies among other disgruntled groups: the Reubenites, Dathan and Aviram, and “250 Israelites who were men of rank within the community, representatives at the assembly, and famous” (Bamidbar 16:2). The Reubenites were aggrieved that as descendants of Yaacov’s firstborn son, they had no special leadership roles. According to Ibn Ezra, the 250 “men of rank” were upset that, after the sin of the Golden Calf, leadership had passed from the firstborn within each tribe to the single tribe of Levi.

The revolt was ultimately bound to fail since their grievances were different and could not all be satisfied. But that has never stopped unholy alliances. People with a grudge are more intent on unseating the current leader than on any constructive plan of action of their own.

Third, choose the moment when the leader you seek to attack is vulnerable. Ramban notes that the Korach revolt took place immediately after the episode of the Twelve Spies and the outcome that the people would not enter the land until the next generation. While the Israelites felt that they were moving toward their destination, there was no realistic chance of rousing the people in revolt. Only when they realised that they would not live to cross the Jordan was rebellion possible. The people seemingly had nothing to lose.

There were two hierarchical structures in biblical Israel. There were kings and there were priests, among them the High Priest. Both were introduced after a crisis: monarchy was established after the failure of the rule of the “judges”, and the Levitical and Aaronide priesthood came after the sin of the Golden Calf. Both led, inevitably, to tension and division.

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Biblical Israel survived as a united kingdom for only three generations of kings and then split in two. And the priesthood became a major source of division in the late Second Temple period, leading to divisions between Sadducees, Boethusians, and the rest. The story of Korach explains why. Where there is hierarchy, there will be competition as to who is the alpha male. There is always a danger of discontent and revolt. The Korach story repeats itself in every generation.

The antidote is daily immersion in an alternative, and the reason is simple. Torah-study seeks truth not power, and values all equally as voices in a sacred conversation.

That is why the Rabbis focused their attention on the nonhierarchic crown of Torah, which is open to all who seek it. Here competition leads not to conflict but to an increase of wisdom, and where Heaven itself, seeing Sages disagree, declares that all viewpoints are “the words of the living God.”

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  1. Why do you think some leaders are only interested in their own power?
  2. What makes a good leader?
  3. How is the “crown of Torah” an antidote to hierarchical power?

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A Story for Shabbat

What Kind of Leader Will You Be?

by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

We can learn a lot about how to dominate others from Korach. Do we all have this tendency? I think not, but many people do feel threatened when they see others succeeding, due to their own insecurities. They feel that the other person’s success in some way detracts from their own ability to shine. And then, instead of finding ways for their aura to also sparkle, the insecure person will instead seek to topple the other person’s aura.   

Korach’s insecurity led him to try and extinguish Moshe and Aharon’s auras. He argued that “The entire congregation is holy!” But instead of using that reason to find ways to elevate the nation, his next words were “Why are you [Moshe and Aharon] lording over the community of Hashem?” His insecurity about his own abilities made him try to lower the leaders instead of raising the people up.    

By contrast, let’s examine Moshe’s method of leadership. There is a beautiful Midrash that implies that Moshe viewed his lasting legacy as that of elevating each and every one of his disciples, the Jewish people. He worried that he hadn’t sufficiently accomplished that task, because so many of his flock still had not realised their innate value. Hashem promised him that as long as a Jew searches the Torah, he or she will always be able to discover their true worth by noting how esteemed each Jew was in Moshe’s eyes. Because Moshe devoted his life to lifting others up, his legacy in the Torah lasts for all eternity.

Lubavitcher Rebbe

This is the difference between a Moshe and a Korach. You can either preserve your importance by lowering others, or you can help raise others, and in the process realise your true value and purpose. Rabbi Sacks was fond of recalling his admiration of the Lubavitcher Rebbe for exactly this trait. He said, “Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he was a source of leadership in others.”    

Korach, in trying to suppress greatness, was himself swallowed by the earth. Once the earth lowered Korach into its belly, it closed its chasm and there was no remnant of him left on the earth. Moshe, by contrast, was elevated before his death up to Mount Nevo, and his legacy still shines for every Jew in every generation. Each of us should ponder: “What kind of leader would I like to be? One who dominates by lowering others, or one who empowers by raising others up?” May we always choose to be the disciples of Moshe.  

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is the senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto (BAYT) Congregation in Canada and the honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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A Closer Look

Rabbi Korobkin reflects on some of the deeper lessons he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.

How can we put Rabbi Sacks’ message on the human tendency to dominate others into real-life practice?

In his footnote, Rabbi Sacks wrote that he had written this week’s piece right after the Brexit vote. Many times in politics, people have a tendency to try to ‘swallow’ others in their ambition for power. You don’t need to be a politician, however, in order to take this message to heart.

Any time I try to squelch someone else’s ability to shine, either by interrupting them or by putting down their efforts, I am giving in to that urge to elevate myself by putting others down. Remember: Your success does not depend on others’ failure!

What impact did Rabbi Sacks have on your approach to education?

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Rabbi Sacks was an example of a person who didn’t need to put others down in order to succeed. He had immense talent as a great communicator of ideas, and so was not threatened by others. In this sense he exemplified the leadership of Moshe instead of the leadership of Korach.

I’m inspired by Rabbi Sacks’ ability to take complex ideas and make them understandable to everyone, and I strive to be a bit more like him whenever I communicate either verbally or in writing. Rabbi Sacks taught me that with hard work and perseverance, you can accomplish great things!

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Torah Trivia

Question 1: Can you name the six parshiyot which are titled after people in the Torah:

Question 2: Where in this week’s parsha can we find the following:

  • An inanimate object which displays human-like behaviour.
  • An inanimate object which displays plant-like behaviour.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week’s answer

Answer 1: The six parshiyot are:

Noach, Chayei Sarah, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas. Interestingly, four of these six are named for non-Jews.

Answer 2:

  • The inanimate object that is described performing a human action is the earth, as it says “and the earth opened its mouth” (Bamidbar 16:32).
  • The inanimate object that is described performing a plant-like action is the staff of Aharon. It sprouted flowers which became almonds (Bamidbar 17:23).
Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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