Sign In Forgot Password

Message from our Clergy |Korach 5780

06/26/2020 10:04:25 AM


June 26, 2020

Dear Ohev Community,

Please see below for a D'var Torah by Rabbi Herzfeld.

Today is the last Friday in June, and therefore the final of the four Faith Vigils Against Racism on 16th St. Though the crowds have decreased in number each week, we continue to maintain a strong presence in front of Ohev.
This past Friday's vigil was of particular significance to me because Geovanka Levine, who is a Black and Latina member of Ohev, attended. She shared how meaningful it is for her shul to be taking a public stand against racism (and gave me permission to share her story.) Her experience is a powerful reminder to all of us that when we gather together as a community to stand against racism we send a message of solidarity and strength not only to folks outside of the walls of our shul but also to Jews of all colors in our own community.
Please join me today from 5-6pm in front of the 16th St steps (if you are able to do so safely.) Social distancing is observed, and please be sure to wear your mask. Though the masks make introducing ourselves to new faces feel a bit awkward, I encourage you to say hi to people you don't know.

Shabbat Shalom,

Maharat Friedman















Korach the Demagogue
Korach 5780
Shmuel Herzfeld

The following story is told about the Satmar Rebbe. One time he was teaching his young child about the story of Korach.  The Rebbe said that when Korach challenged Moshe Rabbenu all the souls of all the Jews who ever lived were present for the dispute.  The Rebbe continued that all the great sages of the Sanhedrin were actually on Korach’s side while many of the simple Jews remained loyal to Moshe.  The Rebbe’s child looked up at him and said, “And whose side were you on?”  The Rebbe responded, “I was on the fence.”  The child exclaimed: “But this was Moshe Rabbenu!  How could you have been on the fence?” With tears in his eyes, the Rebbe answered, “You have no idea of the charisma and appeal of Korach!”
Korach was the greatest Jewish villain of the Torah.  And yet he could not have been purely wicked, or else hardly anyone would have been attracted to him.  Yet, the Torah tells us that Korach brought along with him, “Two Hundred and Fifty men, princes of the congregation, men of great renown” (16:2).  The Talmud tells us that these men were the leading scholars of the generation who were responsible for one of the most difficult areas of Jewish law: calculating the calendar.
“And they arose before Moses, with men from the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown” (Numbers 16:2). These men were the distinctive people of the assembly. “The elect men of the assembly [keri’ei moed]” is referring to those who knew how to intercalate the years and establish the months in order to determine the time for each Festival [moed]. “Men of renown [shem],” is referring to those who had a reputation [shem] throughout the world” (Sanhedrin, 110a).
How could this evil man, Korach, have been so attractive to such smart and sophisticated people?
Korach was able to attract his supporters in the following three ways:
First, according to Ramban, Korach strategically waited till the people were at an emotional low point and only then made his move. 
Korach was motivated by jealousy and greed.  He was jealous of not being Kohen Gadol or Nasi.  However, he knew that it would be foolish to attack Moshe when the people were having success.  So Korach waited until times were tough and he took that as a signal to raise a voice against Moshe and exploit a wounded nation.  In the words of Ramban:
“Therefore, Korach bided his time and refrained from reacting to Aharon’s appointment as Kohein Gadol. In the same way, the firstborn refrained from reacting to the elevation of the Levites and all of Moshe’s actions. However, when they arrived in the Paran desert many were burnt in Taveirah (11:1) and died in Kivros Hataavoh (11:33). When they sinned with the spies, Moshe did not succeed in annulling the decree with his prayer, and the leaders of the tribes died in a plague before Hashem. It was decreed upon the entire people to die in the wilderness. As a result, the people were embittered, and they began to feel that all their failures came as a result of Moshe’s leadership. Korach saw his opportunity now to dispute with Moshe, and he reasoned the people would listen to him” (Ramban, 16:1).
Second, Korach used outright lies to rally his supporters.  We know that Moshe responded to Korach by saying, “I did not take a single donkey from you” (16:15).  This is an indication that Moshe Rabbenu –the greatest human being who ever lived-- was accused of stealing.
The Talmud goes even further and suggests that Moshe was accused of adultery.  Says the Talmud:
“And Moses heard and he fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4), the Gemara asks: What report did he hear that elicited that reaction? Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yonatan says: He heard that they suspected him of adultery with a married woman, as it is stated: “And they were jealous of Moses in the camp” (Psalms 106:16). Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzḥak says: This teaches that each and every man warned his wife to distance herself from Moses and not enter into seclusion with him, as it is stated: “And Moses would take the tent and pitch it outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). It was due to this slander that he withdrew from the camp” (Sanhedrin, 110a).
How brazen must Korach have been to lie in this gross manner about the great Moshe!
The third technique that Korach used was demagoguery or populism.  Like many evil tyrants seeking power, Korach sought to stir up dissension by claiming that he was the only one who had the true interests of the people at heart. 
Korach said to Moshe, “The entire community is holy” (16:3).  Of course this is a true statement in the abstract.  Who can argue with the beautiful notion that all of us are holy?  The Torah calls the Jewish people a “holy nation,” and a “nation of priests.” But Korach’s malicious intent was to use this claim as a pretext against Moshe Rabbenu. 
Korach’s argument was that,only Korach could be the voice of the people because, “you, [Moshe], have exalted yourself over the people” (16:3).
Like other demagogues in history, Korach saw real problems and a disenchanted people as an opportunity to gain more power and wealth.  He offered easy and disingenuous solutions for the sole purpose of gaining power.  According to our sages in Yalkut Shimoni, Korach complained about the excessive tithes that were levied upon the people:
“Korach was a comedian who made sport of Moses and Aaron. What did he do? He gathered the entire congregation, and began to say to them words of mockery. He said: A widow with two orphan girls, who lived in my neighborhood, had a single field. When she came to plow it, Moses said to her: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Deuteronomy 22:10). When she came to sow, Moses said to her: “You shall not sow your field with mixed seed” (Leviticus 19:19). She came to harvest and make bundles, and he said: Leave behind leket (“gleanings”), shikchah (“forgotten bundles”) and pe’ah (the unharvested “edge of the field”—Deuteronomy 22:9 and 24:19). She came to make her silo, and he said: Give terumah (the portion “uplifted” for the kohen), first tithe and second tithe. She accepted the law and gave him. So what did this poor woman do? She sold her field and bought two sheep, to clothe herself from their shearings and profit from their offspring. No sooner had they given birth than Aaron came and said to her: Give me the firstborn, for so has G‑d said to me, “All firstborn . . . you shall sanctify to G‑d” (ibid. 15:19). She accepted the law and gave them to him. The shearing season arrived, and she sheared them; comes Aaron and says: Give me the first shearings, for so said G‑d, “The first shearings of your sheep you shall give to him” (ibid. 18:4). Said she: I have no more strength for this man! I shall slaughter them and eat them! As sooner had she slaughtered them, he said to her: Give me the foreleg, the cheeks and the belly (ibid. v. 3). Said she: Even having slaughtered them, I have not saved them from him! I proclaim them sacrosanct! said he to her: If so, all is mine, for so said G‑d: “All things declared sacrosanct in Israel shall belong to you” (Numbers 18:14). He took them and went his way, leaving her weeping. This is what happened to this poor woman. All this they do, and attribute it to G‑d . . .”
So Korach took advantage of a weak and wounded people with outright lies and a false claim to be on their side, all for the purpose of increasing his own power.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, z”l, notes that this is why the first verse of the portion contains a verb without an object.  “Vayikach Korach, and Korach took” (16:1).  What did he take?  Says Rabbi Lamm it was irrelevant.  His arguments were all specious and motivated by personal greed for the sole purpose of attracting the people’s support (see Rabbi Norman Lamm, ).
In a similar manner, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that Korach foreshadows the dangerous populism of the 1930’s of which he fears a return in the current era.
In 2017, support for populist parties throughout Europe was running at around 35 per cent, the highest level since the late 1930s. Parties of the Far Right gained power in Poland and Hungary, and made a strong showing in Austria, France and Holland. In Southern Europe, in countries like Spain and Greece, populism tends to be of the Left. Regardless of what form it takes, when populism is on the rise, tyranny is around the corner. [2] Human rights are dispensed with. The public grants the strong leader exceptional powers: so it was in the 1930s with Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. People are willing to sacrifice their freedom for the promised utopia, and to tolerate great evils against whichever scapegoat the leader chooses to blame for the nation’s problems. The Korach rebellion was a populist movement, and Korach himself an archetypal populist leader” ( ).
The sad truth is that Korach was nothing but a demagogue claiming the mantle of being a man of the people for his own personal gain. 
This is a tried and true story which we have seen far too often in our history.
The Torah warns us about the dangers of such a charismatic demagogue. 
Our challenge is that if and when we see such a leader, will we see through the demagoguery or will we be swept up by the charisma and easy answers.
If, Gd forbid, we are swept up by such a figure then we will have no excuses.  We have all been warned by the Torah about Korach type figures.
The Torah tells us that sons of Korach did not die.  Presumably it is because they repented and did not follow in their father’s footsteps (see Ibn Ezra, Numbers 26:11).
This tells us that in the face of an attractive demagogue each of us has the ability to choose.  If the sons of Korach can reject their own father as a demagogue, then so too can we reject the demagogues we encounter in our lives.


Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783