Our rabbis teach that the rebellion of Korach, related in this week's Torah portion-Parashat Korach-was the most dangerous moment during the Israelites' journey through the wilderness. I have often wondered why they said this. After all, the conflict ended when "the earth opened its mouth and swallowed ... up all Korach's people." (Numbers 16:32) If Moses was capable of performing such a miracle, how could Korach have hoped to challenge him? Was it only personal ambition that drove Korach?
Having worked in a community of Shoah survivors for many years, I have gained an insight that is different from those in our classical sources. To me, Moses is a typical "hidden child" survivor. When the deportations started, many children were separated from their parents and hidden with non-Jewish families. This meant that they had to assume a new identity, a new name, a new history. They were allowed to stay alive-but not as themselves; they had to be someone else, denying their parents and their roots. For many, this happened several times.
After the Shoah, these children had a terrible time readjusting. If their parents had returned, they often did not recognize their children. Badly traumatized, the parents could not care for their children well. Many children kept their new identities until adulthood. Many of them only found the courage to go and look for their own identities many years later. Each time, it was a truly painful process.
This is what happened to Moses. We do not know what his parents called him: Moses is the name Pharaoh's daughter gave him. (Exodus 2:10) He was brought up as an Egyptian prince and may have been only vaguely aware of his true identity. It was not until he was grown that he "went out to his kinsfolk." (Exodus 2:11) The confrontation was dramatic, and he had to flee for his life. Years later, following the vision at the burning bush, he was sent back to Egypt to redeem his people.
Apparently he had no problem communicating with Pharaoh: They spoke the same language. But he never learned to speak to his own people so that they could easily understand him. He stuttered, or rather he had problems finding the right words and relating properly to the people's experience. Aaron had to "translate" for him. This might have been the problem Moses had with the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness.
Korach was different. Korach was a man of the people. He shared their experiences, he spoke their language, and he knew how to move them. The rabbis tell us that he ridiculed Moses and the Torah. "Why," Korach asked, "is it necessary to have a mezuzah on the doorpost of a room that is full of Torah scrolls?" (Numbers Rabbah 18:3) We know little about Korach, but it may well be that, like many survivors of the Shoah, he rejected God or held God responsible for what the people had suffered in Egypt. The text first gives the impression that Korach wanted the religious leadership. But in Numbers 16:11, Moses analyzes Korach's motives, saying: "Truly, it is against the Eternal that you and your company have banded together."
The danger was twofold. First, Korach was able to speak for the people and gain the popular support Moses could not rally. Second, his motives were to move the people away from God and the Torah. Many other survivors who questioned God's justice would have supported him. The challenge, therefore, was not just about the leadership but about the whole existence and purpose of Israel.
This might explain why Moses, rather than one of the slaves, was chosen to lead the people. Do religious leaders perhaps need to keep a certain distance from the people they care for and lead? They have to be able to empathize and identify with them, but do they maybe also need to have had a different experience-a broader vision that would keep them from getting caught up too much in parochial concerns? Is that why so few rabbis and priests and imams serve the communities in which they grew up?
Korach was too traumatized to lead, and his passion consumed him; Moses, who kept struggling with his identity and his mission, knew how the Eternal was leading him on his way. He was able to convey a different conviction to the people-the conviction we still treasure and live by today.