Korach and Machiavelli, A Dangerous Mix

Posted on July 5, 2024 by Harold Levin

Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to prepare and deliver a drash on Korach, the very same torah portion we read the week. I will begin today by sharing what I wrote back them and will follow up with some additional thoughts as well.

(From 2016)

This week’s Parsha is Korach, from the book of numbers. Korach is one of only six portions derived from the names of individuals. The others are Noach, Yitro, Balak, Pinchas, and Chayei Sarah. Certainly, this would not be described as a cheery, uplifting or inspiring torah moment.

To summarize, Korach starts a mutiny against Moses, questioning harshly his leadership and appointment of Aaron into priesthood. Dathan and Abiram were at his side and they brought 250 additional community members with them. They offered ketoret (incense) as a demonstration that they should all be priests. Upon burying the incense, the earth opened up and swallowed all of them alive. A plague was then halted by Aaron as he offered ketoret, his staff incredibly opening up to deliver almonds, and he is ordained as a high priest.

Rabbi William Cutter provided some interesting insight about Korach. He said, in part that, “Korach is clearly a bad guy, as he rebels against the one clear, pure leader of the Jewish people; there is no doubt about history’s judgement of Korach. But the story becomes more important than its simple moral message when we reflect on the leader whom Korach opposes. (Moses), called in innocence to lead the people… emerges within the larger biblical story as tragic, incomplete, and monumental to the human challenge of leadership. Sometimes those who oppose him or his values are judged, and at other times the rebels guide him in new directions.”

Another take on Korach comes from Rabbi Scott Hausman Weis who compares the behavior of Korach to a current candidate for the U.S. Presidency. He says that both Korach and Mr. Trump are blustery, pig-headed, domineering and presumptuous! Like Korach, Rabbi Hausman-Weis says Mr. Trump is pugnacious and punitive to anyone who disagrees with him.

As I read through the text of parsha Korach, I felt the need to google ‘Donald Trump as a modern day Korach’ and found countless essays from all walks of life on the topic. It is a bit disconcerting to me that those much more scholarly than I found the need to address this topic.

Rabbi Steven Kushner sums it up nicely. He said that “ No one likes to be reminded about the failures and pains of the past. Our psyches go to great lengths to cover up and sublimate that which we would rather forget… But there are some things that need remembering. There are some moments in history and some moments in our own lives that we must remember as they were. Without sugar coating.”

(2024 update)

I never would have dreamt that these words, shared eight years ago, would be fitting for the society we currently live in. Who would have thought that we would have watched renowned scientists, medical doctors, scholars, lawyers and others be ostracized by the White House who replaced them with unqualified people who do not believe in a true democracy?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (of Blessed memory) took a look at Frans de Waal’s study, Chimpanzee Politics. In it he describes how the alpha male, Yeroen, having been the dominant force for some time, found himself increasingly challenged by a young pretender, Luit. Luit could not depose Yeroen on his own, so he formed an alliance with another young contender, Nikkie. Eventually Luit succeeded and Yeroen was deposed.

Rabbi Sacks explained that Luit was good at his job. He was skilled at peacekeeping within the group. He stood up for the underdog and as a result was widely respected. The females recognised his leadership qualities and were always ready to groom him and let him play with their children. Yeroen had nothing to gain by opposing him. He was already too old to become alpha male again. Nonetheless, Yeroen decided to join forces with the young Nikkie. One night they caught Luit unaware and killed him. The deposed alpha male had his revenge. In fact, so humanlike were power struggles among the chimpanzees that in 1995, Newt Gingrich, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, included de Waal’s work among the twenty-five books he recommended young congressional Republicans to read.

Rabbi Sacks compared Korach to other disciples of the Machiavellian school of politics. He understood the three ground rules. First you have to be a populist. Play on people’s discontents and make it seem as if you are on their side against the current leader. “You have gone too far!” he said to Moses and Aaron. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (Num. 16:3).

Second, assemble allies. Korach himself was a Levite. His grievance was that Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as High Priest. Evidently he felt that, as Moses’ cousin, the position should have gone to him.

Korach could hardly expect much support from within his own tribe. The other Levites had nothing to gain by deposing Aaron. Instead he found allies among two other disaffected groups: the Reubenites, Dathan and Aviram, and “250 Israelites who were men of rank within the community, representatives at the assembly, and famous.”

Third, choose the moment when the person you seek to depose is vulnerable. Ramban notes that the Korach revolt took place immediately after the episode of the spies and the ensuing verdict that the people would not enter the land until the next generation. So long as the Israelites, whatever their complaints, felt that they were moving toward their destination, there was no realistic chance of rousing the people in revolt. Only when they realized that they would not live to cross the Jordan was rebellion possible. The people seemingly had nothing to lose.

I do not believe our society, especially democracy, is adequately prepared to survive another round of behavior from a leader who so closely resembles a hybrid of Machiavelli and Korach. This Shabbat, let us hope that we in the U.S., as well as our global allies, remain under the leadership of those who more closely resemble the likes of Moses and Aaron.


Shabbat shalom,

Harold Levin, guest leader