The status of Moses as a leader of unimpeachable integrity is a foundation of Jewish belief. It forms the bedrock of the veracity of the Torah itself and the integrity of its transmission – from G-d to Moses, and from Moses to the Jewish people. If that transmission – and Moses’ integrity as a leader and as a human being – was called into question, it would undermine the entire basis of the Jewish faith; it would mean that the Torah, itself, would be called into question. And, therefore, it was important for there to be an unequivocal declaration of the fact that Korach and his rebellion were wrong, and that Moses was right. There could be no compromise.
In this week’s portion, we read of the epic clash between Moses and Korach. Korach, who was a charismatic person of exceptional ability, leads a rebellion against Moses. In doing so, he lobbies a series of harmful accusations at Moses to undermine his position and challenge his authority.
Korach accuses Moses of nepotism and corruption, and of not fulfilling his word and delivering his promises as a leader. He accuses Moses of not being a faithful emissary of G-d; of not carrying out exactly what G-d had instructed him to do.
Generally, we find that Moses responds to any kind of crisis within the Jewish people by begging G-d to forgive the people for their wrongdoing. Yet in this instance, he doesn’t. Moses did not, nor could not, try to make peace with Korach. He realised, says the Malbim – one of our great commentators – that Korach was challenging the very foundations of Jewish faith.
The foundations of our faith rest on the fact that G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai – and that all of the information contained in the Torah was relayed directly by G-d to Moses, who then transmitted it to the people. If that transmission – and Moses’ integrity as a leader and as a human being – was called into question, it would undermine the entire basis of the Jewish faith; it would mean that the Torah, itself, would be called into question. And, therefore, it was important for there to be an unequivocal declaration of the fact that Korach and his rebellion were wrong, and that Moses was right. There could be no compromise.
What happens? Moses challenges Korach directly. Says Moses, they are both to bring an incense offering to see whose offering is accepted by G-d. The next day, they bring their offerings – and the ground opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers! The rebellion is ended swiftly and dramatically. Moses’ authority is vindicated. The foundation of Judaism is secure.
‘I have not taken one donkey’
If we go back a few verses, there is what seems to be a peculiar statement made by Moses in the midst of the argument with Korach. In beseeching G-d to end Korach’s rebellion, he says, plaintively: “Do not pay heed to their [the rebels’] offering – I have not taken one donkey from them…”
What is Moses referring to? According to Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, he is referring to his appointment as leader of the Jewish people. He was appointed in Midian, the country to which he had fled because Pharaoh was trying to kill him. Now he needs to return to Egypt to carry out the mission. And yet, he didn’t use a donkey paid for by the community, even though he would have been entitled to this, and it was the norm for kings and governors. He was so devoted to the mission that he travelled back to Egypt on his own dime.
The Netziv, another of our great 19th century commentators, interprets Rashi slightly differently. He says Moses is actually referring to a later time when he wanted to bring his wife and children from Midian to join him in Egypt. The Talmud tells us that his wife, Tzipora, was eager to be part of the Exodus from Egypt – she wanted a ringside seat to the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea, and to participate in this momentous, historic event. And so Moses sent a donkey to fetch them, which – rather than charging to the community coffers, as he had every right to do – he paid for himself.
That was the level of his integrity. He didn’t want to have any personal gain from his position of leadership. He had to be able to hold his head up high and demonstrate that everything he did was for the sake of the community.
Here, too, the importance of establishing Moses’ integrity was about making sure the foundations of Jewish faith were rock solid. That the transmission of Torah could not be called into question.
The Talmud documents an amazing sequel to this episode centuries later. The Talmud relates how Ptolemy, the mighty Greek emperor who succeeded Alexander, wanted a Greek translation of the Torah. So, he convened 72 of the great Talmudic sages of the time and placed them in 72 different rooms out of a concern that they would collaborate on editorialising the text for his benefit. He wanted an absolutely pristine translation.
The Talmud records that a great miracle took place – each of the 72 sages, in isolation, made the exact same editorial changes to the text, which were made so as not to give the king (and any Greek readers) the wrong impression of the Torah’s meaning.
What did they change? Firstly, in Genesis, the verse that says: “Let us make man in our image” (a gesture of courtesy G-d made to the angels), the sages translated as: “Let Me make man in My Image”, so as not to give the impression of polytheism to Greek readers who might not know any better. And the second thing they changed was this very statement of Moses. They translated it as: “I have not taken one valuable from them.” They substituted “valuable” for “donkey” (in Hebrew, chemed for chemord) to avoid the impression that Moses may have taken any other items.
You might think – that first change the sages made seems fundamental. The whole of Judaism is predicated on the belief in one G-d. But the second seems almost trivial. And of course, the answer is that it isn’t. The status of Moses as a leader of unimpeachable integrity is also a foundation of Jewish belief. It forms the bedrock of the veracity of the Torah itself and the integrity of its transmission – from G-d to Moses, and from Moses to the Jewish people.
Giving a good account
Leadership is about integrity, it’s about accountability. And that applies to every leader – even a person like Moses, the greatest of all the Prophets. We see another example of Moses’ emphasis on accountability in Parshat Pekudei, which records Moses’ detailed account of all the funds that he collected – an itemised register of all the various materials that were donated, their quantities, and how they were used in the construction of the Mishkan.
Citing the phrase, “which were accounted at Moses’ command” – which is in the passive – the Midrash goes on to describe how, rather than handling the accounts by himself, Moses brought in other people to oversee the accounting process so that it could be carried out in the most transparent and accountable way possible.
What’s really striking here is that Moses was the greatest leader in Jewish history. If you can’t trust Moses, who can you trust? And yet not only did he supply a full account for everything that he collected – in the interests of complete transparency and accountability – he brought others in to verify that account.
Ultimately, we see that Moses’ reputation had to be spotless, his conduct unimpeachable. The very foundation of the Torah, and therefore of the Jewish people itself, rested on this fact – on the shoulders of Moses.
And, in a sense, it rests on our shoulders too. How do you encourage people to love G-d? How do you bring them close to Torah? The Talmud puts it succinctly: “Make the name of Heaven beloved through you.”
In other words, we are called on to bring the people we encounter to an appreciation of, and ultimately, a closeness to, G-d, through our living example. The Gemara goes on to explain what this means – that we speak kindly and gently to everyone at all times, and that we demonstrate absolute integrity in our dealings with others.
In a sense, we are all Moses. We are all responsible for transmitting Torah. We need to ensure we are worthy of this awesome task.