Excerpted from Jerry Hochbaum’s The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms for Leadership, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers
Parshiyot Shelaḥ and Koraḥ both deal with a common theme, dissension in the Jewish encampment in the desert following the exodus from Egypt. Is there anything we can learn from these two sordid events and their possible connection to each other? Indeed, they cast important light on the character and consequences of dissension in Jewish life – then and now.
The episodes differ in very significant ways. Their differences can best be understood by the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of the statement in Pirkei Avot reminding us that we must always be mindful “lifnei mi atah atid liten din v’ḥeshbon,” all of us will ultimately be required to justify our behavior before God with regard to “din” and “ḥeshbon.” As I have previously explained, according to the Vilna Gaon, din deals with deviant acts and corrupt, immoral behavior for which we are held accountable. In this life, we are judged by what we do. In the Heavenly Court, however, the yardstick is ḥeshbon, not what we have done but what we could have done and accomplished with our time and talents.
Koraḥ represents the former; the meraglim, the latter. Koraḥ, an angry and ambitious man, is interested primarily in obtaining power, prestige, and a position of leadership in the community. That is his major obsessive goal, not to contribute in any meaningful or effective way to the welfare of the Jewish people. To achieve his ambition, he
recruits a band of troublemakers like himself who share the same goals he does. They join together not out of any altruistic motives. Their only objective is the achievement of power.
However, one cannot organize a campaign for leadership based only on personal ambition. Therefore, they cleverly conceive an ideological justification for their campaign. Koraḥ declares, “ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim,” all the Jews are holy and pious. There is therefore no need for a special cadre of religious leaders like Moshe and Aharon. In essence, Koraḥ and his followers are a corrupt gang of unhappy, angry men engaged in a personal coup against the leadership selected by God to ennoble the Jewish nation and lead them into the Promised Land.
The meraglim, however, are “kulam anashim rashei shivtei Yisrael,” prominent and distinguished personalities, leaders of the Jewish tribes. Until the episode in Parashat Shelaḥ of their mission to report on the military capacity of the residents of Canaan, they had indeed served their tribes and the Jewish people loyally. Theirs is a failed, rather than a corrupt, leadership. Because of them, the Jews not only are forced to tarry in the desert for forty years – a
postponement that is responsible for the death of dor hamidbar, the entire generation who left Egypt – but also for a “bekhiyah l’dorot,” a wailing for generations of Jews on Tish’ah B’av.
This occurs, now as well as then, when prominent Jewish leaders deviate from the mandate of their mission.