Leaders, political or otherwise, don't like to deal with an open challenge against their authority, especially when they believe they have dedicated their lives to the well-being of their people. The opposition smacks of ingratitude. But that's exactly what happened to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.
At the center of our Torah portion, Korach , stands a major rebellion against Moses, unlike any other before. Though Moses had dealt with minor grumblings, the challenge led by Korah, a Levite, along with Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben, represents the one most threatening to the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
The composition of the Korah story is contested by scholars. Many have convincingly argued that the episode of the rebellion is made up of multiple stories. In fact, Jacob Milgrom says that Numbers 16 is actually made up of four different rebellions: Dathan and Abiram versus Moses; Korah and the chieftains against Aaron; Korah and the Levites versus Aaron; and, finally, Korah and the community versus Moses and Aaron ( The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers[Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990], p. 415).
According to the biblical account, Korah and his group claim that inasmuch as the entire community is holy, Moses and Aaron have no right to arrogate to themselves religious leadership on their own. They say, "Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?" (Numbers 16:3). Understandably, Moses gets upset and suggests that God should resolve the power struggle by accepting the offering of one the two parties in the conflict. God, however, becomes angry with Korah and threatens to destroy the entire rebellious gang. At this point, Moses and Aaron plead with God not to do that, for, as they point out, "when one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?" (Numbers 16:22). This would represent collective responsibility, and that, for the author/editor of this chapter, is simply not fair. God accepts their plea and orders Moses to remove the culprits from the community, after which, we read, the earth "swallowed them up with their households, all Korah's people and all their possessions" (Numbers 16:32). Thus, the rebels are severely punished, and the authority of Moses and Aaron is confirmed. Yet, later on, in a remarkable note, we read that "the sons of Korah, however, did not die" (Numbers 26:11), thus affirming the principle of individual responsibility.
Collective versus Individual Responsibility
According to the older thinking in the Bible, the punishment for an unlawful act is exacted from the culprit as well as his/her descendants. Thus, we read in the Decalogue, God visits "the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me" (Exodus 20:5; cf. 34:7; Numbers 14:18). We have confirmation of this position in the case of King Hezekiah of Judah (c. 727-698 b.c.e.), who is told by the prophet Isaiah that his support of the Babylonian king will cause problems not only for him but for his sons as well (II Kings 20:12-19).
Yet, sometime during the seventh century b.c.e., a new approach seems to have developed regarding the question of responsibility. Deuteronomy 24:16 states, "Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: one shall be put to death only for one's own crime." The same idea is propounded by the prophet Jeremiah, who believed that in the future, "they shall no longer say, 'Parents have eaten sour grapes and children's teeth are blunted.' But every one shall die for his own sins; whoever eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be blunted" (Jeremiah 31:29-30; cf. Ezekiel 18:1-4). This is a clear statement affirming the principle of individual responsibility.
Responsibility and Accountability in Our Days
In modern times, our legal system takes for granted that only the person who commits an unlawful act should be punished. And that is the way it ought to be. It is the fairest system that we know of. However, the social consequences of this thinking are not thereby eliminated. For usually it is not the guilty alone who suffers a penalty; entire families are emotionally and economically affected by the deeds of those who are guilty. Furthermore, we all recognize that children often suffer because of what their parents have done.
In our time, what challenges our sense of fairness is not that the culprit should be convicted when he or she is caught. We expect that. The problem for us is how to deal effectively with those who try-and often succeed-to avoid their personal responsibility. In the last few decades, it has become clear that in our legal system, accountability is becoming a cheap commodity. If you know how to circumvent the law, or get the help of a professional who can do that for you, you can easily get away with murder. Today, you can get caught speeding while driving under the influence, or blurt out a racial slur, or even insult someone's ethnicity or sexual orientation, and later, you can considerably limit your accountability by going into therapy or rehab! In and of themselves, therapy and rehab are positive measures. However, just as we emphasize that individuals are responsible for their own misdeeds, fairness requires that we also pursue those who refuse to take full responsibility for their illegal acts.
Our Torah portion tells us that when the divine plague came down to destroy all of Korah's people, Aaron "stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked" (Numbers 17:13). Thus he made sure that only the culprits were punished, but all those who were not accountable were saved. And that's the way it ought to be.