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Bemidbar - Korach

If I say the word “duckhouse” the adult Brits in the room know instantly what I’m talking about! We’ve had some quite entertaining expense claims from our MPs, as well as the duck house - a wrought iron fireplace, moat clearing, tree pruning, and then there’s the Downing street designer renovation amounting to over £100k.

But MPs have also claimed for laughably small amounts. The wealthiest MP in the Commons thought it was appropriate to claim for a Crunch Corner yoghurt costing 38p. While another MP claimed for a 12-second phone call costing just 1p.

In our parasha, Korach, a motley crew led by Korach, Datan and Aviram, rises up against Moshe and Aharon, challenging their leadership. As with populist uprisings throughout history, there appear to be multiple groups with multiple grievances, coming together against a common target.

Their battle cry is this: רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָ֑ה

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst.

The words רַב־לָכֶם֒ literally mean “too much to you!”. We’re going to look at what this could mean.

Moshe’s reaction to the rebellion is to fall on his face, a posture which I take to be shock at the accusation, humility, possibly prayer. If our face, sometimes called kavod / honour in Hebrew, is the pride of our body, then falling on the face is the act of ultimate humility.

Moshe however rises with steely resolve and sets a deadly challenge to Korach and his followers - they should appear the following day with firepans filled with ketoret, a mixture usually restricted to the Kohen Gadol, and they would see who would be chosen by God. Moshe mimics Korah’s language by saying רַב־לָכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי - it is too much for you, offspring of Levi!

Let’s look, though, at what Moshe says in private to God: “Moshe was much aggrieved and he said to יהוה, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the donkey of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.”

I have not taken anything, even a chamor, the lowliest of the animals. I have not taken a Duckhouse, or even a Crunch Corner. The reproach of רַב־לָכֶם֒, which could so easily be understood as “you have got beyond your station”, is interpreted by Moshe as “you have taken too much for yourself”.

The commentators interpret this line in various ways: Ramban reminds us of the line in Shmuel saying that kings take donkeys. Moshe did not. Onkelos interprets it as a tax - Moshe never imposed taxes. Seforno goes a step further - “I have not even made use of things which any ordinary person would borrow from his neighbour without giving it a thought. This proves that Moshe’s position of authority was exclusively used for their benefit and not for his own.”

Moshe, facing the biggest attack on his authority in his career, feels the need to prove that he is squeaky clean. That everything he has done has been in service of the people.

It’s curious that one title for a Rabbi - Rav - could mean both “one of the many” but also “a lot” or even “too much” asin “rav lachem”! Note to self for choosing a title in 2 years time!

This theme is clearly a significant one in the parasha, because the thread of connection between our parasha and haftara, is on exactly this: The prophet Samuel annoints Saul as the new King. At the point of retirement, Samuel says

“Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the LORD and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe? (The aSeptuagint reads “or a pair of sandals?”)

At the end of a leadership career as Shmuel is, or under attack at Moshe is, it is being free of financial impropriety that concerns both leaders. This theme comes up one other place that I can think of in the Torah:

Avraham says to the King of Sedom: “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours”.

Again, a concern with even the smallest measurement of improper profit. The Crunch corner yoghurt or the 1p phone call. How far can we go with this? I remember being taught at seminary that this extends to using office stationery or equipment for personal use. Literally not using a work pen or pad of paper unless you’ve been given specific permission. Is this going too far or is this the kind of pious standard Jews need to uphold for ourselves?

There are times where some human flexibility seems appropriate and other times where you can be within the letter of the law and still, instinctively we know the behaviour is wrong. In one of my first jobs I watched as my boss filed expenses for a meal for him and his wife, when he was the only one on the business trip. He had intentionally chosen meze food so that it wasn’t clear that two people rather than one were being fed. Why is this a trap that humans so often fall into?

Returning to Korach, we may well ask whether financial impropriety was indeed the line of attack that Korach was going for. It seems like there are several grievances, over Moshe hogging the leadership, over who got access to the priesthood, over difficult conditions in the desert. Maybe Moshe was blinkered in his response, or maybe he’s teaching us a lesson. That a leader may not be perfect, just as he was not, but that what leaders can all do is be scrupulous about not receiving undue financial benefit. Not allowing ourselves a gift which influences, a spurious expense claim, a donkey, sandal strap, thread, duckhouse or crunch corner yoghurt. We are better than this, and Avraham, Moshe and Shmuel all teach us this very important lesson.


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