Taking It Personally
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

When we read Korach’s story, our attention tends to be focused on the rebels. We don’t give as much reflection as we might to Moshe’s response. Was it the right reaction? Was it wrong?

It’s important to bear in mind that the Korach rebellion happened soon after the story of the spies. A whole generation has recently been told their punishment: they will not enter Israel. They will die in the wilderness. This changes everything. Now they have nothing to lose. When people have nothing to lose, rebellions happen.

Who were the rebels themselves. The narrative clearly shows that they were not a uniform or unified group. Malbim explains that there were three sub-groups, each with grievances and agendas. This is often how rebellions start.

Moshe’s first response is to propose a simple, decisive test: Let everyone bring an offering of incense and we will let God decide whose to accept. But Datan and Aviram’s derisive, insolent response seems to unnerve him. God then threatens to punish the whole congregation. Moshe and Aharon intercede on their behalf. God tells Moshe to separate the community from the rebels so that they will not be caught up in the punishment, which Moshe does. Naturally, we expect that this will end the rebellion. But it doesn’t. Far from ending the rebellion, it makes it worse. The people gather around Moshe and Aharon as if about to attack them. God starts smiting the people with a plague. Moshe tells Aharon to make atonement, and eventually, the plague stops. But before it does, 14,700 people die. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Moshe’s intervention, challenging God to make the earth swallow the rebels, was a tragic mistake. If so, what kind of mistake was it?

Ronald Heifetz points out that a leader needs to distinguish between role and self. Leadership is a role. It is not an identity. It is not who we are. It is a position we hold. Therefore, a leader should never take an attack on his leadership personally. But Moshe takes the rebellion personally. But Moshe was not the issue. He had already taken the right course of action in proposing the test of the incense offering. That would have resolved the question. As for the underlying reason that the rebellion was possible – the fact that the people were devastated by the knowledge that they would not live to enter the Promised Land – Moshe could do nothing.

The Torah is honest about Moshe, as it is about all its heroes. In the case of Moshe, his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. His anger at injustice singled him out as a leader in the first place. But he allowed himself to be provoked to anger. Ultimately this lost Moshe his chance of entering the land of Israel himself.

After the episode of the spies, Moshe faced an almost impossible task. How do you lead people when they know they will not reach their destination in their lifetime? In the end, the sight of Aharon’s rod, a piece of dry wood, stilling the rebellion, coming to life again, bearing flowers and fruit. Perhaps this was not just about Aharon but about the Israelites themselves. Having thought of themselves as condemned to die in the desert, maybe they now realised that they too had borne fruit – their children – and it would be they who completed the journey their parents had begun. That, in the end, was their consolation.

Of all the challenges of leadership, not taking criticism personally and staying calm when the people you lead are angry with you may be the hardest. That may be why the Torah says what it does about Moshe, the greatest leader ever. Though it may seem otherwise, the anger you face has nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with what you stand for and represent. Depersonalising attacks is the best way to deal with them. People get angry when leaders cannot magically make harsh reality disappear. Leaders in such circumstances are called on to accept that anger with grace. That truly is a sacred task.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. How else might the story of the spies have influenced the Korach rebellion?
  2. What do you think Moses learned from this rebellion? 
  3. How do you think leaders should respond to criticism?
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Parsha in Passing

Korach leads a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of hoarding power. Korach and his followers challenge Aharon’s appointment as Kohen Gadol. 

Moshe proposes a test with incense offerings to determine God’s chosen. God punishes the rebels: the earth swallows Korach, and fire consumes 250 men. Despite this, Bnei Yisrael protest, leading to a plague. To prove Aharon’s legitimacy, God makes Aharon’s staff blossom. God commands Bnei Yisrael to honour the Kohanim and Levites with specific gifts, as they won’t receive land inheritance. The Levites are given a tithe from the Israelites’ crops, from which they must provide a portion to the Kohanim.

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Parsha People

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Moshe: Learning to lead through challenges vast, his leadership legacy will forever last.

Korach: Ambition unbound, in power’s snare, lost to pride, swallowed by despair.

Datan and Aviram:  In rebellion they stood with egos too strong, their words were provocative, their actions so wrong.

Aharon: His staff is in bloom, a symbol so bright, chosen by God, embodying what’s right.

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Parsha Practical

There is a famous teaching from Pirkei Avot, where Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? One who is content with all that they have.” 

This idea can be directly related to the story of Korach. Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aharon stemmed from dissatisfaction amongst a group of people who desired greater power and more prestige. Instead of appreciating his significant role as a Levite, Korach sought the high priesthood, leading to disastrous consequences. The others had similar complaints.

The Sages explain that true wealth, symbolised by the Hebrew word ashir (rich), includes our eyes, teeth, hands, and feet - gifts from God meant for learning, prayer, and good deeds. This teaches us that true prosperity comes from recognising and valuing the blessings we already have. By being content with our lot, we avoid the pitfalls of envy and strife that Korach fell into. 

True wealth comes from acknowledging that “I have all that I need: God makes sure I do” and living each day with this perspective.

The brachot we say each morning acknowledge all we have to be grateful for, and remind us to thank God for what we have, starting from the very first sentence we say each morning: Modeh Ani. As Rabbi Sacks teaches us, in Judaism we thank before we think. This attitude of gratitude can help to curb a tendency towards dissatisfaction. 

  • What brings you joy and happiness in your everyday life?
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Parsha Playoff

This is a fun take on ‘Hot Potato’ that we call ‘Rebellion Relay’. Select an object to represent the “rebellion” (i.e. a ball, a toy, or anything you like). Form a circle. The leader, with eyes closed, passes the ‘rebellion” to the next person. Then all players pass it quickly around the circle. Watch how fast a rebellion can spread! When the leader says “stop,” the person holding the object must say something kind about the person they’re sitting next to. Can you stop the rebellion? Keep passing the object until everyone has received a kind word spoken about them.

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Parsha Philosophy

Leadership and responses to criticism are the main themes of parshat Korach. As a leader, it’s essential not to take public criticism personally. Moshe made the mistake of feeling personally attacked by Korach and his followers, which led him to react emotionally and escalate the conflict. Instead of sticking to his initial plan of the incense test, he asked God for a dramatic intervention, which worsened the situation. Rabbi Sacks teaches us that influential leaders must separate their identity from their role and gracefully manage criticism. Leaders should understand that criticism is often about the role, or the system, rather than the person in power. Leaders can handle conflicts better and avoid escalating tensions by staying calm and not personalising attacks. 

Moshe’s experience here serves as a reminder that even great leaders can make mistakes, but we can learn from them to improve our own leadership skills.

  • Do you think Korach and his followers were justified? How else could they have acted in this situation?
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Parsha Parable

Power Struggles

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, a wise and just queen ruled the lands with compassion and fairness. The people of the kingdom were happy and prosperous, but as the years went by, a group of young nobles grew restless. Led by a charismatic noblewoman named Charlotte who felt that the queen’s rule was outdated and overly strict, the group became larger and louder. They believed they would be able to lead the kingdom to greater glory.

One day, Lady Charlotte and her followers confronted the queen with a list of demands, calling for more power and privileges to the nobles. The queen listened patiently but refused their demands, explaining that her decisions were always made with the entire kingdom’s best interests at heart.

Dissatisfied with the queen’s answer, Lady Charlotte and her followers launched their rebellion. They gathered an army and marched against the queen’s castle. 

The queen, saddened by the rebellion but determined to protect her kingdom, instructed her army to meet them in battle. Shields were raised as the rebels advanced. Who would win the fight?

The rebellion was fierce, but in the end, the queen’s army prevailed when the people of the land joined in, showing their queen (and the rabble) their loyal support. Lady Charlotte and her followers were asked to leave their homes. They were no longer welcome to be part of the kingdom, for they had shown that they could not follow the laws of the land, and they were unwilling to live peacefully. 

Charlotte and her followers learned that day that rebellion is not the answer. Just because you don’t agree with someone else does not make it okay to try and hurt them. 

If you disagreed with a leader in charge, what would you do to let them know how you felt?

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Parsha Puzzle

Question: Who was Korach’s grandfather?

Answer: It depends which Korach we are speaking about! In parshat Korach, Kehat would be Korach’s grandfather (Bamidbar 16:1). The other Korach is Eisav and Ahalivama’s son. This Korach’s grandfather is Yitzchak! (Bereishit 36:5).

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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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