Korach & Moses’ Meritocracy

Guest Post by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein
Rabbi Bronstein serves as North American Development Executive for Ohr Torah Stone. From 2006-2011 he was Associate Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue. He tweets at @AvBronstein and launched a new blog, cloudpulpit.wordpress.com, where the following is cross-posted.

This is an adaptation of a sermon I delivered last week at a modern orthodox synagogue in the greater NY area. It is reworked slightly to include some material from other discussions and talks from Shabbat and beyond, and also eliminates some of the sermon filler. In conversation, I found that many people saw Korach as a sort of spiritual socialist, sort of a classic cold-war era sermon topic. I tried to make the discussion more contemporary.

Imagine a nation run as a meritocracy, where leaders rose to the top as they proved that they were brighter, more motivated, more assertive — true “leaders,” in every sense of the word. Things started well – there was a period of rapid growth and development, and everyone seemed to be sharing the rewards of the superior decisions and leadership that were coming from what was, by now, a trusted elite. Then, from out of the blue, something went very wrong. The leadership made a terrible collecive mistake, an epic misjudgment so out of line that the people assume they were collectively guilty of criminal negligence, if not outright corruption. As the grim, full reality of the disaster sets in, it becomes clear that all of the previous gains have essentially been erased, and the whole generation itself will go down in history as a wasted one.

Now imagine that, through it all, the meritocracy remains intact. The same leaders remain in charge, demanding the same levels of trust and of faith as though nothing had happened, with no effective safeguards in place to keep it from happening again. We would naturally expect the rise of popular movements to voice the people’s loss of confidence in the failed status quo. The truth is that this scenario actually happens quite often. In 2010, their motto was, “Don’t tread on me.” In 2011, they chanted, “We are the 99%.” And in last week’s Torah Portion it was Korach challenging Moses, insisting that “the entire community is holy, and God rests among them, so why do you lord yourself over the congregation of God?”

David Brooks would answer Korach by telling him that things are not necessarily worse than they ever were and things would improve, but if only he were a better follower:

we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

Along the same lines, the Midrash paints a picture of Korach not making a principled spiritual argument, but instead acting in response to his ambition and jealousy.

He believed Moses had slighted him by appointing his cousin Elizaphan as chief of the Levite division of Kohathites. He said: “My grandfather had four sons, Amram, Ishar, Hebron, and Uzziel. Amram, as the firstborn, had privileges of which his sons availed themselves, for Aaron is high priest and Moses is king; but have not I, the son of Izhar, the second son of Kohath, the rightful claim to be prince of the Kohathites? Moses, however, passed me by and appointed Elizaphan, whose father was Uzziel, the youngest son of my grandfather. Therefore will I now stir up rebellion against Moses, and overthrow all institutions founded by him.

According to Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe (19th century, Poland), Korach was actually correct in theory. His undoing was not a matter of argument, of principle, but merely a matter of timing. He says Korach should have objected when the tribe of Levi was itself elevated over the other 11 tribes, when Korach and his extended family were given rights and responsibilities beyond those of the typical Israelite:

But regarding Korach’s claim, King Solomon said (Proverbs 20:26) “The wise King scatters (‘mezareh) the wicked, and turns the wheel (‘ofen‘) over them.” That is to say, God had already placed the wreath (‘zer‘) and the crown (of the Levites) upon them, and thus had already elevated their status. And in regards to this, Hashem “turns their own character traits (‘ofen‘) against them. ” God asked them, “Why is it that when I granted you this lofty status you didn’t complain immediately, saying ‘There is no hierarchy in Israel and no individual should be set higher than his fellow man.’?” (Translation Elli Sacks)

I think that Korach may well be correct in his argument – the meritocracy had indeed failed. The Israelites had encountered one setback after another on their short journey from Egypt. Most recently, the leadership fell right into the sin of the spies, which Moses and Aaron never saw coming.

The problem was not necessarily Korach’s ambition, jealousy, or ideology. It was, was that the only person who could force Moses to confront the enormity of the breakdown that had occurred and articulate to him the loss of confidence that the people had in their leaders and institutions was himself a leading member of the Levite tribe.

As if in response to Brooks, Chris Hayes, of The Nation and MSNBC, recently published Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Hayes makes the point that an ongoing, competitive meritocracy almost automatically creates a wide chasm between the elite and the masses, between the rulers and the ruled. From within what was once called an ivory tower, but is now called an echo chamber, interacting only with others who are very much like them, who think very much like them, and who share their basic interests and concerns, the elite, over time, become less elite. Their judgments are less reliable, their grasp on reality is shakier – even as they consolidate more and more power and influence. It is all too easy to have terrible lapses, whether by sheer negligence flowing from being out of touch with the “real world” or outright criminal activity driven by the heat of competition (Adapted excerpt in The Nation). Think Enron, the Housing Bubble, Katrina – or the sin of the spies.

Moses lived alone near the Tabernacle, far from mainstream Israelite society, where he most regularly interacted with God and his appointed elders, who answered only to him. Is it so hard to imagine that they did not correctly anticipate how the people might react to any given situation?

The Midrash is sensitive to this reading, providing stories of Korach accumulating massive wealth on the way out of Egypt that motivated him into confrontation with Moses. As Aaron Swartz writes in his review of Hayes:

As competition takes over at the high end, personal worth resolves into exchange value, and the elite power accumulated in one sector can be traded for elite power in another: a regulator can become a bank VP, a modern TV host can use their stardom to become a bestselling author (try to imagine Edward R. Murrow using the nightly news to flog his books the way Bill O’Reilly does). This creates a unitary elite, detached from the bulk of society, yet at the same time even more insecure. You can never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world; even if you have the most successful TV show, are you also making blockbuster movies? bestselling books? winning Nobel Prizes? When your peers are the elite at large, you can never clearly best them.
The result is that our elites are trapped in a bubble, where the usual pointers toward accuracy (unanimity, proximity, good faith) only lead them astray. And their distance from the way the rest of the country really lives makes it impossible for them to do their jobs justly—they just don’t get the necessary feedback.

The first verses of the portion note the presence of ‘On, son of Pelet in the insurrection. At the end of the story, everyone is punished – except for ‘On. The Midrash explains that ‘On was saved by his wife, who tells him, “Why are you, a regular person, getting involved? If Moses wins, everything stays the same. If Korach wins, everything stays the same, except Korach is in charge!” In the end, ‘On sleeps through the final confrontation, appropriately, since it was, as his wife correctly noted, more or less irrelevant to his life.

In the end, of course, Moses is re-validated and the status quo is preserved, but God did not speak to Moses again for an entire generation. The episode of Korach, according to most sources, took place immediately following the sin of the spies, in the second year following the Exodus from Egypt. The narrative resumes in the 40th year of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, prompting the Midrashic note that God did not speak to Moses even once in the 38 intervening years.

I would suggest that God’s silence was constructive, not punative. As a new generation of Israelites matured and prepared to inherit their promised land, God did not want their leaders to turn only towards Moses, and He did not want Moses to turn directly to God. Instead, He wanted leaders who would look down, turning towards the people to be in tune with their concerns, issues, and values. As Hayes documents, the authority that we place in meritocracy is only viable if there is also accountability, communication, and perspective.

Korach did not understand that, as a Levi, his challenge to Moses was actually also an argument against himself. We live in a world that is so interconnected, where our lives and thoughts and actions affect so many other people – often beneath the surface, thousands of miles away, or not readily apparent.

Sometimes, even when we are correct in theory, our perspective is just not wide enough. Sometimes we’re like Moses, spending so much time in the clouds, talking to God, that we forget that our ideas impact real people. Sometimes we are like Korach, not realizing that we are actually arguing against ourselves, against who we really are and what we truly represent. The entire tragic episode reminds us that, if we really want our values and ideals are to impact the world, to really improve the world, we first have to really understand ourselves, to think very deeply about where we are, where we are going, and who we are taking along for the ride.

4 responses to “Korach & Moses’ Meritocracy

  1. Why a “crisis of followership”? If people are more cynical, it’s NOT because they like to pretend they are better than everybody else. It’s because, perhaps, they are tired of being lied to. They are tired of the charade in Washington where the competing parties pretend to fight for the benefit of the “people”. What really happens is that a few monied interests take care of themselves and leave the rest of us to twist in the wind. How can we trust government after the Gulf of Tonkin non-Incident, Watergate, etc… etc..?

  2. I have been reading the many obituaries and appreciations of Nora Ephron in the NY Times, Forward and elsewhere, all favorable , all dazzled by her empathy, natural warmth and talent. She brings to mind a second , more benign conception of meritocracy, where our social world is a large family where everybody is within two degrees of separation, and where we support and help each other. My impression is that many industries and professions work for the most part as an old “boy” network. We see these relations in academia, the clergy, medicine, law, Silicon Valley, Hollywood. It might not be the old WASP establishment, but it is a long way from the impersonal, entrenched bureaucracy of Kafka and Hayes.
    The Korach affair can be darshened as an intrafamily brouhaha that threatened the network of governance. “Our Crowds” work against a background murmur of gossip, but open rebellion is not the way… we all know that, maybe because we know what happened with Korach.

  3. While the Mei HaShiloach does acknowledge that Korach’s argument had an element of truth in it, the Mei HaShiloach is not saying that Korach’s argument was actually valid, in principle, and his error was “merely a matter of timing.” The point made by the Mei HaShiloach is that Korach was, indeed, motivated by his own desire for honor, for if his true motivation had been that “the entire community is holy” then he would protested earlier when the Leviim had been elevated. The fact that Korach first raised this argument only after he personally had been passed over demonstrated that his motivation was purely selfish. Thus, his own argument, which was only a means – “ofen” – to his true end, was turned back upon him.

  4. Reblogged this on Reddotsg's Blog and commented:
    Imagine a nation run as a meritocracy, where leaders rose to the top as they proved that they were brighter, more motivated, more assertive — true “leaders,” in every sense of the word…. Read on?

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