The Dangers of Populism–Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

There is a fascinating Midrash, one of many attempts by chazal to try to understand Korach’s critique of Moses’ style of leadership, and the arguments Korach uses to incite others to join his rebellion. 

Korach, the compassionate storyteller, describes a widow who must support her two daughters.  She owned one field, and when she was about to plow, Moses said to her, “Thou shalt not plow an ox and an ass together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).  When she was about to sow, Moses quoted the pasuk,  “Thou shalt not sow thy field with two kinds of seed” (Leviticus 19:19).  When she was about to bring her harvest to the granary, Moses was there saying, “Give the first tithe and the second tithe offering.”  She submitted to the law, thereby forcing her to sell her property in exchange for two sheep. However, at every step Aaron was there to take the first males (Deuteronomy 15:19) or the first portion of shearing (Deuteronomy 18:4), until she had to give up her sheep, as well, to the Beit Hamikdash, leaving her weeping, destitute with nothing.  Korach ends his argument with the cry, “All such evil things Moses and Aaron do on their own; but they hang the blame on the Holy One!”  (Midrash Tehillim/Shoher Tov 1:15)

Put this way, it is difficult to see the Torah as a compassionate code of laws, intended to protect those in need.  According to Korach, the Torah, and those who embrace Torah precepts are nothing more than narcissistic individuals, with little regard for the welfare of others.  Halakha is not designed to enhance our lives, but rather to bring about our demise.  

It would be easy to make this argument.  To point fingers and blame Moses and Aaron for the struggles and hardships that Bnei Yisrael faced in the desert. It would be the easy, but it also plain wrong. Korach’s fault, his sin, is in his oversimplification of a complex problem.  Korach conveniently neglected to cite the many pasukim that seek to protect the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  His populist arguments were intended to incite unrest and dissent for the sake of controversy.  Not for the sake of democracy. 

Korach’s rebellion can be compared to another episode in the Torah of potential rebellion, with one key difference.  Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, also criticizes Moses’ style of leadership.  However, while Korach’s argument is not based on well researched and thought out information, Yitro’s advice comes form a place of support, with the intention of helping Moses become a better leader.

וַיַּרְא חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־הוּא עֹשֶׂה לָעָם וַיֹּאמֶר

And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people he said… (Exodus 18:14)

Yitro looked and saw. He did his research, trying to understand the complexity of Moses predicament, and then with tremendous love, he guided Moses on how to serve his people better.  Criticism can be a useful tool to help a person grow, but one should always know from whom the critique is coming.  Does it come from someone who cares about you, and wants to see you and your teachings flourish? Or does the criticism come from a place of hatred and distrust?  Does it come from someone who is willing or unwilling to consider and analyze every angle of a problem?

Not everyone can be expected to agree on every issue.  However, trying to undermine and unseat an entire movement, by putting forth a populist argument, without appreciating the sophistication and richness of a complex religious tradition, as Korach attempted to do, is not a useful form of dialogue. 

The Gemara in Eiruvin 13b describes the machloket, the disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  A bat kol issued forth announcing that “both are the words of God but the halakha is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”  But if both are the words of God, the Gemara asks, why is Beit Hillel entitled to have the halakha be in agreement with their rulings? “Because… they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs.”

Beit Hillel did their homework. They considered every angle of any given controversy.  .  They didn’t attempt a coup, and incite others to disregard other ideas.  Instead they “saw,” and considered alternative views, and only then did they make an educated argument.

May each one of us have the wisdom and patience of Yitro and Beit Hillel to help perpetuate arguments that are truly “for the sake of Heaven.”

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