Parashat Balak: Prophecy and Leadership can come from the most unexpected places, OR Female Donkeys have much to teach us

Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)

Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.  He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments.  The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.

In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.

Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”

The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.

The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”

She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?

In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.

I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton  אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.

I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.

I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.

In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn.  Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.

While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome.  It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.

The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.

There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.

John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”

The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:

Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.

Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem.  The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind.  Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.

 

 

Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.

Korach:the Brexit challenge of its day

Sometimes the concatenation of torah portion and world events is simply eerie.  In the UK we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid that spectacularly exploded outside of the narrow boundaries of party politic where it should have remained, and in bible we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid where the ambition of the leaders of the revolt harnessed popular opinion from those who felt marginalised and deserted by the ruling elite leading to a spectacular implosion of those ambitious challengers.

Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses and Aaron (his father Izhar and their father Amram were brothers) felt that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power, and that others in the community were equally competent to lead and were dissatisfied at being treated as being less than the ruling group. Along with Datan and Abiram and On ben Pelet and two hundred and fifty men of standing in the community he came to challenge the right of the leadership to continue.

רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָֹ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהוָֹֽה:

You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then do you raise up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (16:3)

Moses’ response was to fall on his face. He did not argue back, nor justify his leadership at this time, but seems to have been paralysed for a moment, and then he puts the onus for supporting his status on to God. A charitable reading would be that Moses was prostrated in prayer, to ask for divine guidance, but this is not recorded in the text, so what happens next seems to have come more from Moses’ mind than from God.

He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the Eternal will show who are God’s, and who is holy, and will cause them to come near to God; (16:5) and then told Korach and his followers to take their firepans the next day and put fire and incense in them, and God would show who would be chosen, who was holy. He challenges the Levites in Korach’s group – they already have a role and status in supporting the worship ritual, are they trying to take on the role of the Cohen, the priest, as well as that of Levite, the enablers of the priests?

Then follows a strange hole in the narrative – Moses says:

לָכֵ֗ן אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הַנֹּֽעָדִ֖ים עַל־יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י תַלִּ֖ונוּ [תַלִּ֖ינוּ] עָלָֽיו

Therefore you and all your company that are gathered together against the Eternal–; and as to Aaron, what is he that you murmur against him?’

What is the ‘therefore’ referring to? What causes the leap from accusing the rebels of challenging for the priesthood to accusing them as rebelling against God? Why does he appear to break off from this startling reframing of the rebellion and ask about Aaron specifically?  The rebellion is against both Moses and Aaron, but Moses seems to be taking himself out of the equation, viewing the – quite legitimate – complaints as being about the priesthood, and not about his own style of leadership.

Having categorised the rebellion as being about something rather different than what it really was about, he turns to the sons of Reuben, the descendants of the first born of Jacob, the tribe who might really have had a claim to leadership on the grounds of primogeniture and the inheritance hierarchy of the biblical world.

But Datan and Abiram are not cowed and they are not willing to come to him on his call, interestingly saying   לֹ֥א נַֽעֲלֶֽה we will not come up. Not that they will not come to him, but that they will not ascend/rise up. There are two very different understandings of this odd verb – one, that even while professing that they have an equal right to leadership their language betrays them – they see Moses as having a rightful higher status than them; or that while challenging Moses’ right to hold leadership, they refuse themselves to step up to the role, preferring to complain and challenge from the sidelines but without any intention of taking responsibility for the consequences of what they are doing.

Yet they are certainly prepared to complain and to paint a picture of failure and fault.

“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself also a prince over us?  Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.'(16:13-14)

Fabricated nostalgia paints a false picture of the past which is the set against the present situation. One might paraphrase it as “We came from milk and honey and we are not now given milk and honey, nor the other benefits you told us we would acquire on leaving Egypt and going to the Promised Land. And you are creating a climate of fear here where people who dissent fear for their health and wellbeing, so we will not do as you ask”  The Reubenite challengers are constructing an alternate reality in public view in order to bolster their position without in any way arguing their case or indeed using factually correct information. Egypt was most certainly NOT a land of milk and honey for the Israelites, the people are not yet arrived at the destination they are travelling towards and therefore the inheritance is not yet possible, and nowhere has the putting out of eyes of the men been mooted. But now this view is in the public domain, put forward by men of standing in the community, and there will be those who will believe it to be true, whose anxiety and disaffection can be harnessed, and the pressure is on Moses and Aaron to disprove it.

Datan and Abiram are gifted demagogues, agitating the people with manipulative appeals to popular prejudice and unfulfilled wishes. This is a dangerous moment for the people of Israel, with discontented murmurings and denigrations of the leaders’ activities and plans. They have used the language of future prosperity against current reality and against a rose tinted past that had never existed. Should they take over the leadership, what would have happened? God had not chosen them, did not seem to speak to them nor, from what the text tells us, had any relationship with them. The tribe of Reuben, who should have ordinarily have had access to leadership had lost it through the selfish and transgressive act of Reuben himself, who slept with Bilhah, mother of some of his brothers.

As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he addressed parting words to his sons, and spoke of Reuben like this:

Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigour, Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honour.Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace-my couch he mounted! ((Gen. 49:3-4)

And yet Datan and Abiram chose to ignore the shame that lost them their tribal dominance, and stand against Moses and Aaron, presumably in the hope of restoring that advantage for themselves again.

The rest of the story is simply awful. God enters the narrative, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” and they respond by asking God “Shall one man sin and you be angry with the whole community?”  Should the whole community pay the price of the arrogance of the group who challenged?

The test of the firepans leads to the public and horrible spectacle of the rebels and their families swallowed alive when the ground beneath them opened up momentarily, so that they fell into a pit which closed over them.  The two hundred and fifty men of renown who had supported the rebels and who had brought their fire pans and incense were destroyed by a fire that came ‘from the Eternal’ and the rest of the Israelites fled in panic and disarray, terrified by what had been unleashed, terrified for their futures.

So what do we learn? We learn that rebellion against leadership that comes from thwarted ambition is a dangerous event, all the more so when those who lead the rebellion are skilled demagogues who manipulate the language and the reality so that the majority of the people are left confused and unclear.  We learn that leadership needs to be firm and fairly applied, that leaders should not distance themselves from the people and their concerns, take them seriously rather than see them as distractions to the long term plan and irrelevant. We learn that ALL the people have value, all of us matter, and to discount us or ignore us is a strategy that will backfire in time as enough frustration and anger builds for someone to come and use it for their own purposes. We learn not to trust thoughtlessly, but to research and learn for ourselves, to see the world around us through our own eyes and not through the filter of those with an agenda of their own.

Sometimes the Torah portion speaks to the moment in a particularly powerful way. Korach and his fellow leaders were not ab initio coming from a false position, all the people ARE holy, Moses and Aaron’s style of leadership WAS autocratic and did not take account of the feelings of the people enough. But from a platform of rational and defendable positions they shifted to irrational and indefensible actions and a terrible scenario was let loose which had implications for the entry into the land for a generation.