I once got lost in the desert with friends. Not a metaphorical desert, either. A group of us were out hiking in the desert about 30 minutes north of Eilat — near Kibbutz Ketura, where we were living — and we missed a trail marker. We found ourselves on a ledge, looking down at the kibbutz, nearly out of water, with no idea how to get down safely. If we’d been a well-adjusted group, or if we hadn’t been barely adults at 20 or 21 years old, maybe we could have gotten down without bickering. As it was, we spent a lot of time arguing over whose idea was best before settling for a plan. We made it down out of the hills (obviously, since I’m writing this now) but it was dicey for a while. Some leadership, or even some trust, would have helped.
I haven’t thought of that trip into the Arava desert in a while, but it came to mind this week, as I read the portion. This week we read about Korah, the Israelite who took on Moses, along with a band of “…two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.” (Numbers 16:2)
The group of Korah’s people come before Moses and challenge his right to leadership. Why, they ask, should Moses be the one in charge, if all Israelites are made holy? Why shouldn’t more people have access to power? The hierarchy should change. They demand for it to change.
This does not go well. Moses and Aaron challenge the usurpers to a duel of sorts, a standoff in front of the holy Tent of Meeting, where the spirit of God resides. It doesn’t take long for God to make His opinion of the uprisers clear — the actual ground opens up and swallows them whole.
“Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions,” says Numbers 16:32, going on to describe a fire that “went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men.”
This is one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, and it has never sat well with me. After all, was the sin of Korah and his followers so great that they deserved such a harsh punishment? What was their sin, anyway — confronting and questioning leadership? That’s practically a civic duty.
The need for strong, knowledgeable, and trustworthy leadership is crucial, especially in times of unrest and instability. What could be more unstable than wandering the desert, especially considering that God just announced last week that they’d be wandering for 40 years, until this generation died out.
I can only imagine that Korah and his followers must have been pretty desperate if they were questioning the only person who claimed to have a way out of the unending dunes and sandstorms.
Looking around me, I see that both my countries (Israel and the United States) are in a period of instability and unrest. Both are seeing a shift in leadership, and are hoping that they will find some strong guides to show them the way through the wilderness. Both are questioning what they know about their leaders, and where to go from here.
I’ve always thought that questioning and maintaining accountability amongst our leaders is crucial. As a parent, this is even clearer to me. The stakes are just higher now, when it comes down to it. Where I once worried about the values and direction my homeland(s) were taking for my own sake, and then for the sake of myself and my wife, now I worry about it for my child. My kiddo will, God willing, live a long and healthy life. I see it as my responsibility as a parent to do what I can to make sure that those who hold the levers of power are doing what they can to make this the best place for my kiddo as possible.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially seeing the outcome of the last Israeli election, watching the shift to a new federal administration in the U.S., and thinking about the upcoming Mayoral election in New York City. There are so many opportunities for us to choose leadership — that’s how lucky we are to be citizens of democracies. It’s imperative that we use that choice wisely, both for ourselves and for the next generation.
That said, there’s also a whole lot that we can do on non-election days. There are ways in which we can make a difference within our closest communities, show up for the values we believe in, and try to urge the world to budge in the direction of good. These are not only ways in which we show up for our children’s future, they also allow us to model in the most hands-on way what caring for one another looks like.
Both these aspects are important to me, as a parent.
When I read about Korah this time, it stood out to me that the portion begins with his and his co-leaders’ genealogy. “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben.” says Numbers 16:1.
I’d noticed this before and have often wondered over the years what this pedigree is trying to tell us. This time, though, it seems to me that it’s not about pedigree at all — it’s about pointing out the responsibility of one generation to another. Maybe Korah and his followers took it upon themselves to take on such a risk for their children, and their children’s children. Maybe, just maybe, God made a bad call on this one. They were just trying to change their reality, to shift the paradigm. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do, as we look around the world and think what’s best for the little ones who we love?