Korach: False populism

Populism_commentsRav lachem.  (Num 16:3)

You have gone too far. Or as Rashi (11th c France) translated, “You have too much” Or, as Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) translated, “You have enough.”

Here’s the setting: Korach, a Levite like Moses and Aaron, but from a different branch of the family, rose up against Moses. He had gathered 250 tribal leaders of the Israelites, and stood against Moses and Aaron. Korach said, “rav lachem”, staging a revolt against the very leaders that took the people out of Egypt and has been leading them through the wilderness.

Many have wondered what it was that bothered Korach so much; what was he accusing Moses and Aaron of doing that was so bad, they needed to start a revolution? Moses and Aaron were haughty? They weren’t sharing the leadership roles? After all, Korach said, the whole community is holy, and who made you so special to be ruling over us? Moses, upon hearing this, told Korach the next day, God would make clear who the leader was to be, adding, “rav lachem” – basically, right back atcha, Korach, no you’ve gone too far.

We see the word “rav” in other places, as applied to the people as a whole. In Exodus, (Ex 1:9), Pharoah said that the people were “rav” – there were too many of them, and he was alarmed.  And later in Numbers, King Balak hires a prophet to curse the Israelites because they had become “rav”, which alarmed the King.

Maybe what’s really bothering Korach (and Pharaoh and Balak) is that he was threatened by the number of people that were following Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh and Balak were alarmed by how numerous the people had become. Was Korach alarmed by how popular Moses had become?

Today, there is great store put in a “populist” message. It’s an easy message: Those other people are infringing on our freedom. Those other people are a danger to our freedom. Those people are getting too numerous, and they’ll crowd us out. This country elected a “populist” a few months ago, and he has done nothing but stir up distrust and alarm for the “other” from the time he began his quest for leadership. He thinks he is standing up for the little guy, like Korach was doing. He thinks he is setting himself apart as the voice of the voiceless. And, like the 250 leaders Korach gathered behind him, some people bought the act. But ultimately, Korach’s rebellion was a failure; he and his followers were swallowed up by the earth, and a plague ran through the community until Aaron placed himself between the plague and the people, stopping it in its path.

The populist in office has followers, as did Korach. And on the surface, Korach’s complaint against Moses made sense. But if his motivation was “rav lachem”, and he was sowing distrust and division among the people, then anyone using that same motivation is similarly doomed.



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