Did Mosheh handle Korach’s rebellion in the best way possible? Can we even ask that question?

Did Mosheh handle Korach’s rebellion in the best way possible?  Contrafactual hypotheticals can never be answered definitively, but we can make a partial judgement based on outcomes.  And based on outcomes, the verdict is fairly negative – the leading rebels were not reintegrated into the community, but rather killed, and the majority of the community rebelled again the day after they were killed.  G-d’s anger was not assuaged, but rather He sent a plague that killed thousands and was stopped only by a new intervention.

The key textual support for this evaluation is that in Bamidbar 16:21 G-d tells Mosheh:

 הבדלו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אתם כרגע:

Separate from within this assembly, and I will consume them in an instant,

and Mosheh responds

האיש אחד יחטא ועל כל העדה תקצף

Shall one man sin, and You act-with-anger with the entire assembly?!

whereas in  17:10 G-d says

הרמו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אתם כרגע

Elevate yourselves from within this assembly, and I will consume them in an instant

and Mosheh can respond only by sending Aaron to stand in the way of the plague

:כי יצא הקצף מלפני יקוק החל הנגף

 because the acted-on-anger has already gone out from G-d, the plague has begun.

In other words, the outcome of Mosheh’s initial response was to directly involve the whole community in a sin which originally could be attributed to Korach alone.

The problem with a contrafactual is that we cannot know whether any policy would have produced better results – perhaps this was a Kobyashi Maru no-win scenario, and any alternative would have left Aharon impotent to stop the inevitable plague. Some of us will feel that religious faith requires the belief that Mosheh handled the rebellion properly.  At least one midrash, however, traces Mosheh’s eventual exclusion from eretz Yisroel to his overly harsh rhetoric toward the Levites here. I have no strong opinion, but one insight emerged from studying this parashah while studying intensely about war generally. That is:  What exactly was Korach threatening to do?  He gathers crowds against Mosheh, but did they actually engage in, or threaten to engage in, disobedience?  The midrash concretizes his disobedience by having him wear a tkhelet tallit without tzitizit, but the text as we have it has no such active illegality.  Perhaps there was an opportunity still to redirect, rather than directly oppose Korach’s challenge.

But then again, any policy’s outcome depends on the free-willed choices of the other participants, and that can never be knowable.  In the end perhaps the deepest lesson of the parshah is that Mosheh could not know in advance or afterward whether he made the best decision, and that should teach us empathy for all those who with honesty and sincerity accept the challenges of political leadership.

Shabbat Shalom!

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