In 1877, a group of Texas farmers formed the Farmers Alliance, a populist movement that rose to protect poor farmers and sharecroppers from malicious creditors who kept them impoverished. The movement grew rapidly, drawing tens of thousands of supporters, electing dozens to state offices and even Congress.
At the end of the Farmers Alliance convention of 1892, former Minnesota Congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly, declared: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. … We seek to restore the government of the republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with whom it originated.” Thus was born the Populist Party, the most successful third-party in American history.
His critique echoes in the words of populist leaders through the centuries. But perhaps the first populist uprising can be found in this week’s Torah portion. Korach, a member of the Levite tribe, took 250 other leaders among the Israelites to rebel against Moses and Aaron. “You have gone too far!” they railed against them. “For all the people are holy – all of them. And God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Typical of populist leaders, Korach and his band accused Moses and Aaron of elitism – raising themselves above the people, claiming for themselves power and privilege that should belong to everyone. After all, the Midrash suggests, all the people stood together at Sinai, and all the people heard God speak to them directly, so what gave Moses and Aaron the right to separate themselves as leaders and priests?
So what made Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron so egregious? Were they wrong? Had not Moses made his brother the High Priest, consolidating power in the hands of a small elite? Is it wrong for the people to challenge their leaders, to demand accountability, to acknowledge that before God none of us is of greater worth than another?
A clue can be found in the beginning of the portion. The story begins with a phrase “ויקח קרח – Vayikach Korach” – which means “And Korach took…” (Numbers 16:1). What did Korach take?
Rabbi Samuel Barth suggests that Korach’s sin was not in his challenge to Moses’ leadership or his critique of their elitism. His sin was in “taking” himself, and his followers, apart from the community, creating a schism and a faction, dividing the community not only against itself, but against God as well.
“Populists are those who claim that they and only they represent what they typically call the real people or also the silent majority,” teaches Professor Jan-Werner Mueller. “They claim a kind of monopoly of representing the people with the consequence that all other contenders for power are deemed fundamentally illegitimate, corrupt, and, to coin a phrase, crooked. And less obviously, that all those who don’t agree … are basically excluded from the people.”
In the Pirke Avot, the rabbis distinguish between proper and sinful controversies. “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his assembly.”
What was different about Hillel and Shammai? The Talmud teaches that their respective followers engaged in bitter debates and disputes for years. But despite their disagreements, they never rejected the other as the enemy: “Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed … nevertheless they allowed their children to marry each other …” (Yevamot 14b)
Korach’s great sin was in suggesting that he and his followers were the “true” Israelites, the “real” Jewish people. In taking the populist stance, Korach took the sinful path of so many populist leaders – dividing a people against itself, demonizing the other as the enemy elite, seeking to make himself a god.
A healthy and holy society champions the rights of the vulnerable and oppressed, demanding of its leaders accountability and integrity. But leaders who demonize the other to cultivate their own power, fracturing a people against itself, commit a sin that a people, a society, and the Holy One, can never tolerate.
Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”