• Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi

Korach – Self Righteousness


Government has taken on many forms over the last millennia. Monarchies, dictatorships, the democracies of Rome. There have been imposed governments and elected governments, dynasties and stewardships. By and large, modern governments are representative governments, with a Prime Minister or Head of State at the helm.

Nevertheless, the very institution of government is compromising. Winston Churchill stated: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.’

Nonetheless, government is a necessary evil. Without a central authority there could be no justice system or accountability. Anarchy would rule the streets, and there likely would be no streets because no agency would exist to build and maintain them. We need government to regulate various industries and impose standards of hygiene and safety. We are at liberty to drink milk in many countries today, including our own, without special kosher supervision on the grounds of food regulations in the dairy industry.

Many governments extend their authority to protect employees in the workplace, establishing minimum wages and other benefits. They develop welfare systems and public health provisions. They create standards and curricula for education and they take ownership of historical heritage locations and public parks.

We fund our governments, mostly through taxes, although not always happily. Overall, government provides more advantages than otherwise, and aside from some bickering about specific policies we are content to allow government to play its role.

Leadership of the Jewish nation in the wilderness was different than other systems of governance. Moses had not been elected by popular vote, nor had he seized power by force. He had reluctantly accepted this position by Divine Order. All of his actions were in accordance with instructions from above; at no time did he act on his own impetus.

Subordinate positions of leadership were also by Divine Order. Aaron was appointed High Priest by God’s instructions and Moses’ executive administration, the seventy elders, were also chosen according to criteria imposed by Heaven rather than by election.

Enter Korach on the scene. Driven by personal ambitions, Korach launched a public campaign to undermine Moses’ authority and gain political support in his bid for the High Priesthood.

‘Moses is keeping power in the family,’ Korach whispered loudly to the masses. ‘Why should we need such leadership? Moses is no greater or holier than any of us! The Lord has chosen the entire nation as a Kingdom of Priest. We are all equal candidates of these coveted positions. In fact, we don’t need leadership at all!’

In any other form of government these arguments might have been correct as they were persuasive. As it was, Korach’s campaign was successful in swaying public opinion. His arguments made sense, and they appealed to the masses as altruistic and democratic.

But Aaron’s appointment, and Moses’ authority, did not stem from human choice. They were not elected nor did they assume their respective positions by right of heritage or merit. They were divinely appointed and their appointments were not subject to human critique.

The governance of the Jewish nation was a theocracy. There were no lawmakers or legislators among the people. The law was Divine and the government was there to relay the law and enforce submission to it.

There are numerous theocracies today, and we are witness to the great dangers inherent in those types of governments. There has been a surge in recent years of horrific actions taken in the name of religion, or at least there is more media coverage about such things. A theocracy is the last type of government one of us would wish to belong to. It is too dangerous and could so easily get out of hand by people asserting to represent God.

I once heard from Rabbi Frand a passage from the Midrash of Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer. The Midrash notes that there are two nations whose names incorporate the name of God. ‘El’ is one of the names of the Lord in our tradition. It refers to the might of God. The two nations are IsraEl and IshmaEl. The Jewish nation is Israel; The Arab nations are said to be heirs of Ishmael. God invested His name in both of these nations, both of whom are descended from Abraham.

There are two opposite perspectives to take from the investment of God’s name into the name of one’s people. One perspective is seeing one’s nation as subordinate to God and serving as God’s emissary and reflection in the world. A nation with that attitude will take extra care to ensure that it follows standards that would reflect only positively on the Almighty.

At the other extreme one can feel that God has sanctioned and endorsed one’s nation as the only true and correct way to live. Any opposition to one’s nation, and any deviation within the nation is an attack on the Lord, and His will, and it is to be crushed through any means. According to this latter perspective any action one takes must be the correct action because, after all, God has signed His holy name upon the name of the nation.

It sounds wildly extreme but it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing things through the lens of self-righteousness. Having God’s name invested in our nation gives us a very heavy responsibility. Our role is not to judge others or determine what is right for everyone else. We need to ensure that our behavior and conduct is such that would make any parent proud to have birthed our nation. Our task is to provide nachas to our Father in Heaven.

©2020 by Wellington Jewish Community Centre.