Drash on Parashat Bemidbar 2018
Rabbi Stan Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, is not a happy book. Here we see the Israelites lurching from crisis to crisis. Last week we had the defeatism and panic of the spies. This week, in Parashat Korach, we have rebellion. Moses cannot catch a break.
This is how the sorry episode begins:
Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?”
Korach and company are quite artful in their agitation against Moses’ leadership. They are aggressive, but they mask their aggression with words that, at first hearing, have an element of reasonableness. At the foot of Mount Sinai, God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So when Korach says “all the community are holy, all of them”— who can argue? Is Moses or Aaron of a different order of being than the people they lead? Neither of them would ever make such a claim. It is this veneer of truth, thin as it is, that makes this such a dangerous moment.
To understand what is happening in this story, it is helpful to have a look at a very short, but extremely insightful book written by the Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus at Princeton University. Unfortunately, the title of this book is unprintable in a publication such as this, so I will call the work On Malarkey. (Look up Dr. Frankfurt’s author page on Amazon to see the actual title.)
Frankfurt carefully distinguishes malarkey from lying. Malarkey is a form of misrepresentation, but not of the facts. Frankfurt writes: “What malarkey essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers or the belief of the speaker concerning the state of affairs. . . The malarkist may not deceive us, or even intend to do so about the facts. . . What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”
If we scrutinize Korach’s words, we see that he is engaging in precisely this kind of misrepresentation. He speaks of “the people,” but the band he has assembled are not rank and file Israelites, but an elite— Levites and tribal chiefs. The JPS translates the rebels’ challenge to Moses as “You have gone too far.” The Hebrew is “rav l’chem”. Rashi understands the phrase to mean “too much for you”— “you have taken too much greatness for yourselves.” For all their talk of holiness and the interests of the people, what Korach’s crew really wants is a fat slice of the pie for themselves. They care about nothing else. The only problem with power is that it is not vested in Korach and his followers, hence their use of manipulative malarkey to tear Moses and Aaron down.
Our Sages had a keen ear for self-serving rhetoric (aka malarkey). In Pirke Avot we learn: Any dispute which is for the sake of heaven, will in the end yield results. And any dispute which is not for the sake of heaven will, in the end, fail to yield results. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? It is the sort of dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And what is one that is not for the sake of Heaven? It is the dispute of Korach and all his party.
For Hillel and Shammai, truth was the mutually acknowledged goal and they fought over it in the open. For Korach, truths and half-truths are tools used to achieve a secret, self-aggrandizing objective. The difference between these two kinds of dispute is not what is said. Conceivably, a Hillel and a Korach could use the very same words to make their respective arguments. The difference is found in why they say what they say.
It is easy to identify with Moses in this story. If there is a Korach involved in the conflicts that arise in our lives, we never think he is us. It is important then to remember that Korach is not an alien monster. He is in the Torah to show us a potential shadow incarnation of ourselves. He is there to remind us that anyone can fall to the snares of his or her own ego. We cannot be sure that our arguments are for the sake of heaven without strenuous self-examination, for our propensity for malarkey is very great. As difficult reading as it is, Korach is an essential text for our age— A time when public discourse is too often toxic and when argument for the sake of heaven is needed as never before.