Latest update: June 10th, 2013
The Korach rebellion was an unholy alliance of individuals and groups unhappy with Moses’ leadership. There was Korach himself, a member of the tribe of Levi, angry (according to Rashi) that he had not been given a more prominent role. There were the Reubenites, Datan and Aviram, who resented the fact that the key leadership positions were taken by Levites rather than members of their own tribe. Reuben had been Jacob’s firstborn, and some of his descendants felt that they should have been accorded seniority.
Then there were the 250 “princes of the congregation, elect men of the assembly, men of renown” who felt aggrieved (according to Ibn Ezra) that after the sin of the golden calf, leadership had passed from the firstborn to a single tribe, the Levites. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Korach story is an all too familiar tale of frustrated ambition and petty jealousy – what the Sages called “an argument not for the sake of heaven.”
What is most extraordinary about the episode, however, is Moses’ reaction. For the first and only time, he invokes a miracle to prove the authenticity of his mission:
Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea. If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”
In effect, Moses uses his power to eliminate the opposition. What a contrast this is to the generosity of spirit he showed just a few chapters earlier, when Joshua came to tell him that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp, away from Moses and the 70 elders. Joshua regarded this as a potentially dangerous threat to Moses’ leadership and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” Moses’ reply is one of the most majestic in the whole of Tenakh:
“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.”
What was the difference between Eldad and Medad on the one hand, and Korach and his co-conspirators on the other? What is the difference between Moses saying, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” and Korach’s claim that “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them”? Why was the first, but not the second, a legitimate sentiment? Is Moses simply being inconsistent?
Hardly. There never was a religious leader more clear-sighted. There is a distinction here which goes to the very core of the two narratives.
The Sages, in one of their most profound methodological observations, said that “the words of the Torah may be poor in one place but rich in another.” By this they meant that if we seek to understand a perplexing passage we may need to look elsewhere in the Torah for the clue. A similar idea is expressed in the last of Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 rules of biblical interpretation: “Where there are two passages which contradict each other, the meaning can be determined only when a third passage is found which harmonizes them.”
In this case, the answer is to be found later in the book of Bamidbar, when Moses asks God to choose the next leader of the Israelites. God tells him to take Joshua and appoint him as his successor:
“So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua, son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Elazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your splendor so that the whole Israelite community will obey him.’”
Moses is commanded to perform two acts over and above presenting Joshua to the priest and people. First he is to “lay his hand” on Joshua. Then he is to give him “some of your splendor.” What is the significance of these two gestures? How did they differ from one another? Which of them constituted induction into office? The Sages, in Midrash Rabbah, added a commentary which at first sight only deepens the mystery:
“Lay your hand on him” – this is like lighting one light from another. “Give him some of your splendor” – this is like pouring from one vessel to another.
It is this statement that will enable us to decode the mystery.
There are two forms or dimensions of leadership. One is power, the other, influence. Often we confuse the two. After all, those who have power often have influence, and those who have influence have a certain kind of power. In fact, however, the two are quite different, even opposites.
We can see this by a simple thought-experiment. Imagine you have total power, and then you decide to share it with nine others. You now have one-tenth of the power with which you began. Imagine, by contrast, that you have a certain measure of influence, and now you share it with nine others. How much do you have left? Not less. In fact, more. Initially there was only one of you; now there are 10. Your influence has spread. Power operates by division, influence by multiplication. With power, the more we share, the less we have. With influence, the more we share, the more we have.
So deep is the difference that the Torah allocates them to two distinct leadership roles: king and prophet. Kings had power. They could levy taxes, conscript people to serve in the army, and decide when and against whom to wage war. They could impose non-judicial punishments to preserve social order. Hobbes famously called kingship a “Leviathan” and defined it in terms of power. The very nature of the social contract, he argued, was the transfer of power from individuals to a central authority. Without this, there could be no government, no defense of a country and no safeguard against lawlessness and anarchy.
Prophets, by contrast, had no power at all. They commanded no armies. They levied no taxes. They spoke God’s word, but had no means of enforcing it. All they had was influence – but what influence! To this day, Elijah’s fight against corruption, Amos’ call to social justice, and Isaiah’s vision of the end of days are capable of moving us by the sheer force of their inspiration. Who, today, is swayed by the lives of Ahab or Jehoshaphat or Jehu?
When a king dies, his power ends. When a prophet dies, his influence begins. Returning to Moses: he occupied two leadership roles, not one. On the one hand, though monarchy was not yet in existence, he had power and was the functional equivalent of a king. He led the Israelites out of Egypt, commanded them in battle, appointed leaders, judges and elders, and directed the conduct of the people. He had power.
But Moses was also a prophet, the greatest and most authoritative of all. He was a man of vision. He heard and spoke the word of God. His influence is incalculable. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, in a manuscript discovered after his death:
…an astonishing and truly unique spectacle is to see an expatriated people, who have had neither place nor land for nearly two thousand years … a scattered people, dispersed over the world, enslaved, persecuted, scorned by all nations, nonetheless preserving its characteristics, its laws, its customs, its patriotic love of the early social union, when all ties with it seem broken. The Jews provide us with an astonishing spectacle: the laws of Numa, Lycurgus, Solon are dead; the very much older laws of Moses are still alive. Athens, Sparta, Rome have perished and no longer have children left on earth; Zion, destroyed, has not lost its children.
The mystery of Moses’ double investiture of Joshua is now solved. First, he was told to give Joshua his authority as a prophet. The very phrase used by the Torah – “vesamakhta et yadekha lay your hand” on him – is still used today to describe rabbinic ordination, semikhah, meaning, the “laying on of hands” by master on disciple. Second, he was commanded to give Joshua the power of kingship, which the Torah calls “splendor” (perhaps majesty would be a better translation). The nature of this role as head of state and commander of the army is made quite clear in the text. God says to Moses: “Give him some of your splendor so that the whole Israelite community will obey him … At his command, he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” This is the language not of influence but of power.
The meaning of the midrash, too, is now clear and elegantly precise. The transfer of influence (“Lay your hand on him”) is “like lighting one light from another.” When we take a candle to light another candle, the light of the first is not diminished. Likewise, when we share our influence with others, we do not have less than before. Instead, the sum total of light is increased. Power, however, is different. It is like “pouring from one vessel to another.” The more we pour into the second, the less is left in the first. Power is a zero-sum game. The more we give away, the less we have.
This, then, is the solution to the mystery of why, when Joshua feared that Eldad and Medad (who “prophesied within the camp”) were threatening Moses’ authority, Moses replied, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Joshua had confused influence with power. Eldad and Medad neither sought nor gained power. Instead, for a while, they were given a share of the prophetic “spirit” that Moses possessed. They participated in his influence. That is never a threat to prophetic authority. To the contrary, the more widely it is shared, the more there is.
Power, however, is precisely what Korach and his followers sought – and in the case of power, rivalry is a threat to authority. “There is one leader for a generation,” said the Sages, “not two.” Or, as they put it elsewhere, “Can two kings share a single crown?” There are many forms of government – monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy – but what they have in common is the concentration of power within a single body, whether person, group or institution (such as a parliament).
Without this monopoly of the legitimate use of coercive force, there is no such thing as government. That is why in Jewish law “a king is not allowed to renounce the honor due to him.”
Moses’ request that Korach and his followers be swallowed up by the ground was neither anger nor fear. It was not motivated by any personal consideration. It was a simple realization that whereas prophecy can be shared, kingship cannot. If there are two or more competing sources of power within a single domain, there is no leadership. Had Moses not taken decisive action against Korach, he would have fatally compromised the office with which he had been charged.
Rarely do we see more clearly the stark difference between influence and power than in these two episodes: Eldad and Medad on the one hand, Korach and his fellow rebels on the other. The latter represented a conflict that had to be resolved. Either Moses or Korach would emerge the victor; they could not both win. The former did not represent a conflict at all. Knowledge, inspiration, vision – these are things that can be shared without loss. Those who share them with others add to spiritual wealth of a community without losing any of their own.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The influence we have lives after us; the power is oft interred with our bones.” Much of Judaism is an extended essay on the supremacy of prophets over kings, right over might, teaching rather than coercion, influence in place of power. For only a small fraction of our history have Jews had power, but at all times they have had an influence over the civilization of the West.
People still contend for power. If only we would realize how narrow its limits are. It is one thing to force people to behave in a certain way; quite another to teach them to see the world differently so that, of their own accord, they act in a new way. The use of power diminishes others; the exercise of influence enlarges them. That is one of Judaism’s most humanizing truths. Not all of us have power, but we are all capable of being an influence for good.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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