Korach and The Failure Of Meritocracy

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein

Imagine a nation run as a meritocracy in which leaders rise to the top as they prove that they are brighter, more motivated, and possess a greater sense for achieving the common good. Things start well – there is a period of rapid growth and development, as everyone seems to be sharing the rewards of the superior decisions and leadership coming from what is, by now, a trusted elite. Then, seemingly from out of the blue, something goes very wrong. The entire leadership makes a an epic misjudgment so out of line with their reputation as the best and the brightest that the people assume they were collectively guilty of criminal negligence, if not outright corruption. As the grim, full reality of the disaster sets in, it becomes clear that all of the previous gains have essentially been erased, that an entire generation may well be wasted.

Now imagine that, through it all, the same leaders remain in charge, demanding the same levels of trust and of faith as though nothing had happened. We might naturally expect the rise of popular movements to voice the people’s loss of confidence in the status quo. This scenario actually happens quite often. In 2010, their motto was, “Don’t tread on me.” In 2011, they chanted, “We are the 99%,” In 2016 they rally behind “Make America great again,” and in our parashah Korach boldly asserts “The entire community is holy, and God rests among them.”

The Midrash describes a Korach who is not so much making a principled political or spiritual argument, but instead cynically manipulating the masses to further his own personal ambition. In one interpretation, Korach was slighted by the appointment of his cousin Elizaphan as chief of the Levite division of Kohathites. “Therefore will I now stir up rebellion against Moses, and overthrow all institutions founded by him.” We do not have to look far to find contemporary parallels.

However, according to Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, Korach was actually correct, and perhaps even made his argument in good faith. His downfall was not objecting sooner, when his own tribe of Levi was itself given rights and responsibilities beyond those of the typical Israelite.

Citing Proverbs 20:26: “The wise King scatters (‘mezareh‘) the wicked, and turns the wheel (‘ofen‘) over them,” the Ishbitzer explains that God had already placed the wreath (‘zer‘) upon Korah and his followers, and thus had already elevated their status. As a result, God turns their own traits (‘ofen‘) against them. In the end, Korach’s position of privilege undermined his egalitarian message.

Looking at the Biblical narrative, the meritocracy had indeed failed. The Israelites had encountered one setback after another on their short journey from Egypt. Most recently, the leadership fell right into the sin of the spies, which Moses and Aaron never saw coming, dooming an entire generation to death in the wilderness.

Most concerning, perhaps, the only person who could force Moses to confront the enormity of the breakdown that had occurred and articulate the loss of confidence that the people had in their leaders and institutions was himself a leading member of the Levite tribe, a part of the ruling elite. The problem was not necessarily Korach’s ambition, his jealousy, or his ideology. Korah’s followers are described as “princes of the community,” reinforcing the idea that the only people who had the ability to really say something about the failure of leadership were themselves part of the problem. Korach had the right idea, yet at the same time he totally missed the point.

In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes makes the point that an ongoing, competitive meritocracy almost automatically creates a chasm between the elite and the masses, the rulers and the ruled. From within what was once called an ivory tower, but is now called an echo chamber, interacting only with others who are very much like them share their interests and concerns, the elite, over time, become less elite. Their judgments are less reliable and their grasp on reality is shakier – even as they consolidate ever more power and influence. Moses lived alone, near the Tabernacle and far from mainstream Israelite society, where he most regularly interacted with God and his appointed elders. It is perhaps not coincidental that the sin of the spies almost directly follows the appointment of an additional layer of bureaucracy explicitly designed to cushion Moses from the people and their concerns.

In the end, of course, Moses is re-validated and the status quo is preserved, but something significant does happen in the aftermath of the episode. According to most interpretations, Korach’s insurrection took place immediately following the sin of the spies, in the second year following the Exodus. From here, we pick up the story again in the 40th year of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. Rashi explains that God did not directly speak to Moses even once in the 38 intervening years.

I would suggest that God had a constructive purpose in His silence. As a new generation of Israelites matured, God wanted leaders who would turn not to a Moses who speaks directly to God, but towards the people and their concerns.  As Hayes documents, the authority that we place in meritocracy is only viable if there is also accountability, communication, and perspective.

Korach did not understand that, as a Levite, his challenge to Moses was actually also an argument against himself, a point that, in the heat of an election year, bears profound reflection. Sometimes we’re like Moses, spending so much time in the clouds talking to God that we forget that the things we do and say impact real people. Sometimes we are like Korach, not realizing that the principled arguments we make against our leaders can all too easily be turned against us as well. The resolution of the episode teaches us, perhaps, that there is a value in institutional establishments and hierarchical leadership so long as it doesn’t take a Korach to get their attention.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein (SBM 2002) coordinates institutional outreach and sales for Koren Publishers. He has served in rabbinic positions at The Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue.

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