Demagogues – Korah 5784

D'var Torah | Numbers

In ancient Greece, a demagogue was a popular public speaker. There was nothing pejorative about the word. Over time, a demagogue became synonymous with a manipulative and ambitious upstart who uses rhetoric to gain power. It is in this sense that the Rabbis see Korah. He is condemnable as a promoter of controversy for personal gain (Avot 5:17). The Biblical narrative explores the rise and fall of Korah, the demagogue.

Korah’s intentions are immediately obvious: he “takes.” Those familiar with Hebrew grammar realize that “to take” is a transitive verb, that is, it must connect to an object. One has to take something. The commentators are thus constrained to explain what it was, exactly, that Korah took. However, the text may actually be intending something else. Korah was simply a “taker.” He was not at all interested in contributing to the benefit of the people Israel. He was only interested what he could gain for himself.

The next step was to assemble together a small cadre of toadies who would carry out his plans. Korah finds Datan, Aviram, and On to do his bidding (Numbers 16:1).  After that, Korah, like all demagogues, needed to attract a sufficient number of followers to show that he is a force with whom to be reckoned. Two hundred fifty followers gather around him (Numbers 16:2). And the next step would be to present what would seem to be a reasonable argument for assuming power. For Korah, that means claiming that all Israel is holy and power should not be hoarded by Moses and Aaron alone.

Noteworthy, after the initial rebuke that signals that Korah’s ambitions will go unmet, he is no longer heard from. The action shifts to Datan and Aviram (Numbers 16:12, 25, 27). Even when Korah is specifically addressed (v. 16), he does not respond. Such is the character of demagogues. Their courage fades when their fate is sealed.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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