Korah’s rebellion is perhaps the lowest point of Moses’s journey through life. Not only have the people failed to enter the land, now there is (another) mutiny against him. With what is he to encourage the people, now that all their dreams have been shattered?
In the midst of this incident, we see a remarkable phenomenon, which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is wise enough to point out for us.
Moses has put forth a dramatic litmus test before God and the people. He said,
“By this you shall know that it was the LORD who sent me to do all these things, that they were not of my own devising: If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, 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.” (Num.16:28-30)
Incredibly, God responds to this outrageous challenge by literally opening the ground and swallowing up all those responsible for the rebellion, along with everyone associated with them. It’s the very definition of an open and shut case.
“One cannot imagine a more dramatic vindication. God had shown, beyond possibility of doubt, that Moses was right and the rebels wrong. Yet this did not end the argument. That is what is extraordinary. Far from being apologetic and repentant, the people returned the next morning still complaining – this time, not about who should lead whom but about the way Moses had chosen to end the dispute: “The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. ‘You have killed the Lord’s people,’ they said” (17:6). You may be right, they implied, and Korah may have been wrong. But is this a way to win an argument? To cause your opponents to be swallowed up alive?” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Covenant & Conversation: Numbers, the Wilderness Years”, pg.206, Maggid Books, New Milford, CT)
Wait…..did I just read that the swallowing alive of Korah, his family, and all associated with him and their families, into the earth, did not end the argument?? Yes, that’s what I just read.
The dispute raged on. All that changed was the complaint.
This is sickeningly reminiscent of so many other things in life.
I remember when I was a young boy, and then a teenager. I would lay in my bed fantasizing about telling off the school bully or even beating him up and winning over the affection of his girlfriend. (I accomplished this in high school, actually. I was feisty in high school). The point is, I would think to myself: “I’ll show everyone!”
Most young boys dream of moments of victory and triumph in which all present, or all who will ever talk about, read about, or watch video of, my conquest would know, without question that I had won. There would be no conditions, no caveats, no asterisks. Just plain ole’ domination.
In sports, we see this all the time. One team completely curb-stomps another, and before you know it, they are bragging in front of the cameras, saying ‘We’re number one!’ and they are climbing the “power rankings”, compiled by a balding, overweight beat writer who never made varsity. Then, the criticisms begin: Their strength of schedule is weak. They beat the team that was missing it’s best player. It was a “trap” game (meaning the other team had an emotional letdown).
We see it in politics. The President will give a rousing, well-received State of the Union address. But what steals the show is all the talk from the talking heads afterwards. You know, the people who are paid good money to criticize the work of others and tear down their credibility. They discuss the implications of what’s been said. They evaluate the effectiveness of the speech, and whether it was “strong” or “weak”. They get the response from the opposing party and evaluate that. Before you know it, one cannot discern what was actually said from what was said about what was said. It’s all very disconcerting.
“The critic is always wrong.” – Jerry Garcia
We see it at work. The boss will buy pizza for everyone out of his own pocket just to build teamwork, and several employees, while gobbling free pizza, will complain under their breath that, ‘If he really wanted to impress us, they would (fill in blank here).’ Or, ‘Free pizza doesn’t make up for (fill in blank here).’ It’s all very discouraging.
In like manner, we see Moses defending his integrity before God:
“Do not turn to their gift offering! I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.” (Num.16:15)
I can picture Moses, laying in his boss-man tent, visualizing God opening the very earth beneath Korah’s feet and swallowing him alive, with Moses standing over the gaping fiery fissure, the light from the molten lava dancing on his twisted gleeful face, as he laughs demonically at the scene.
No. That’s not how Moses was, was it? No, it wasn’t.
But one would think that this is exactly how Moses must have appeared to those who came to him after this event actually happened in real life.
They said, paraphrased, “You call this leadership?? We object!”
It’s the nature of things.
Two things I’ve learned the hard way in life over many years:
1) People are down on what they’re not up on.
2) People seem uninterested until someone else decides they care.
Moses, who in earlier texts of Torah was a hard-charging, Type “A” personality, the leader and not apologetic for it, is here reduced to a man literally negotiating with God for the preservation of his own head.
This man, upon whom leadership and responsibility was thrust, seemingly (almost) against his will, is now face-to-face with his worst nightmare become reality; the mutiny of the very people he had vowed to serve.
He had faced this once before: Long ago, as a younger man, he took it upon himself to defend the plight of the unfortunate and killed a man. He had to flee for his life.
It’s like the old adage:
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
Only now, he could not flee. He was in the desert. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to go. No Jethro to provide shelter and comfort. And worse, the people had lost hope. Moses’s mission was now to lead them aimlessly until they were all dead. How inspiring.
So, he cried out to God: “Why??!” He said, “I’ve done nothing wrong!!”
Then, when God miraculously puts an end to the threat, the remaining people are insulted and upset about the way it was put to an end, as though it was his fault.
Sometimes, we feel this way. We do the right thing. We do it for the right reasons. And all that we get for it is shattered relationships, broken hopes, and redirected ambitions. We end up alone. The enemy of all. Is this justice?
What Moses is learning here, it seems, it what all of us must learn. We serve God, not people. Even though we must love others and serve them in order to love and serve God, it is still God whom we serve, alone.
It can be very discouraging when all of our noblest efforts only result in pain and rejection and tragedy. It can cause us to become envious of those who walk the line, not straying from the safe middle, always preserving a safe means of retreat in case things get too sticky in the kitchen.
The mark of greatness, however, is to be willing to take the shots and be controversial for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, anyway.
There are times when we know we are right. We are completely right, in fact. It’s like an open and shut case. There’s no debate. And yet, even so, we find ourselves on the outside, looking in, wondering where it all went wrong. Take heart: you are in good company.