The Midrash goes to great lengths to extol the virtues, greatness and importance of Korach. It naturally does so in order to place into juxtaposition the foolishness and meanness of his behavior towards Moshe and Aharon, behavior that leads to his destruction. Yet, in describing the greatness of Korach – a leader of the tribe of Levi, one of the bearers of the holy Ark, the wealthiest man in Israel, a close relative of Moshe and Aharon – the Midrash is probing to discover the great fault and flaw in his character that eventually dooms him to destruction.
On the surface at least, there is little that separates him from Moshe and Aharon. His claim to leadership apparently has enough merit to it that hundreds of leading Jews join him in his complaint against Moshe’s rule. His populist slogan, that all of the people are holy and worthy and Moshe has no right to rule over them in a single-handed fashion, resonates amongst the Jews. If all of this is the case then what is Korach’s problem? Why does his seemingly justified stance lead to such an abysmal downfall? What trait of Jewish leadership is he so lacking that its absence negates all of the positive qualities that seem to surround him?
The simple answer to this question is provided in rabbinic writings, especially in the works of the great Chasidic masters as well as in the teachings of the men of Mussar. And that answer is that Korach is destroyed by his own hubris, He never doubts his holiness, he is smug in his righteousness, and he sees himself as being almost infallible. He is confident that God will follow Korach’s plans, for how can it be otherwise? He is so convinced of his rectitude that he actually believes the inner voice that propels his quest for power and station is, so to speak, God’s voice instructing him to rise up against Moshe’s rule.
The Torah taught us a few weeks ago that Moshe was the most humble and modest human being on earth. Moshe’s refrain, even in this crisis with Korach, is that he and Aharon are nothing. Moshe has no opinion of his own – he is only the faithful servant of God. Jewish leaders require self- confidence. But they should never confuse this confidence with infallibility. Even after decisions have been made and policies actually executed, the leader must review his plans and ideas. He must always ask what does God want of me rather than what do I want of God. The essential difference between Korach and Moshe is reflected in their approach to this matter.
The rabbis in Avot warned us not to trust ourselves in our holiness and piety even to the last day of our lives. Self-righteousness breeds arrogance and hubris, which in turn spell disaster for the individual and the community. Modesty and humility can temper hasty and ill-advised policies and decisions. All of the Jewish people may be, in the words of Korach and his supporters, holy people. But unfortunately not all of them are blessed with the quality of modesty and true self-analysis that alone can save otherwise great people from unforeseen disaster.
Rabbi Berel Wein Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com