In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding, “All the community are holy ... Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Often, Korach’s actions are interpreted to be the jealous behavior of one who sees himself as entitled to power. But what if his behavior reflects something different — a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised?
Our haftarah this week (I Samuel 11:14-18:32) finds the prophet Samuel too facing feelings of helplessness. In his time, the people desired a king, but Samuel did not want to appoint a king over Israel. He feared people would think the king held the ultimate power over them, and they would lose their connection to God as the Ultimate Power. Samuel felt both powerless to say no to the people’s request, and powerless over their inevitable distancing from God if he were to say yes.
We all have moments when we feel powerless. Sometimes we feel powerless to act and sometimes we feel powerless over the consequences of our actions. Whether because of an accident, a mistake, an illness, a negative encounter with another person, or simply overfilling our plates with tasks, the more powerless we feel, the more our stress levels tend to escalate.
Perhaps Samuel used a simple strategy to harness his power and lower his stress. Maybe he asked himself three fundamental questions:
- What can I do?
- What am I willing to do?
- What am I not willing to do?
Samuel was a prophet, military leader, and the last of the judges. He had a lot of power as a leader. However, he also recognized his power was finite. To use the gendered language of the Bible, if the people were to turn away from the King of Kings in favor of an earthly ruler, Samuel would be powerless to prevent the harm that would come from their breaching their covenant. If he were not to appoint a king, he was powerless over the reaction of the Israelites.
In Deuteronomy Moses instructs, “If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal One has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15). This approval of the Israelites having a king is clear. So is God’s statement to Samuel, “Listen to the people ... It is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king,” (I Samuel 8:7). Despite Samuel’s wishes, it is time for him to help the people establish a king.
When we break Samuel’s situation down to the three questions and answer them from a perspective I imagine he might have had, we can see something like this:
- What can I do? I can say “no,” and the people may protest like the followers of Korach. If they reject my judgment they may abandon not only me as the last judge, but also God. How will there be any continuation of God’s teachings or the fulfillment of the covenant if I sever their hope? I can say “yes,” and there will be a king with the danger of them going astray, but also with the hope of them unifying under a just ruler approved by God.
- What am I willing to do? I am willing to listen to God, who instructed me “Listen to the people ... It is not you they have rejected; it is Me that they have rejected as their king.” (I Samuel 8:7) I am willing to try. If the people refuse to listen to God, at least I can fulfill God’s words to me. I may not like it, but I am willing to do it.
- What am I not willing to do? I am not willing to appoint the king and walk away. I will remind the people of their commitment to God. I will strive to set an example and be a voice of faith.
These are the same questions that apply to us today, when we feel powerless.
Sometimes when we are overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness we get sucked into the responses of the followers of Korach — venting, anger, yelling, all because we don’t think we have power (Numbers 16:3; 12-14).
But we can respond like Samuel, and recognize that although power is finite, in every situation we do still have the power of choice. The first question, “What can I do,” allows us to lay out everything that really is within the realm of possibility. Rather than rail against what we cannot do, we can channel our thoughts into all the potential ways we can respond.
When we look at the list of possibilities and realize there are some responses we are willing to employ, we further our grasp of a situation. When we eliminate the items we are not willing to act upon, we exercise the choice to accept when a situation is out of our control and institute free will to the extent that God has given it to us over our lives.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of Samuel’s role in making Saul the king of Israel is the grand way in which he ensures that the anointing take place. Once Samuel decides that he can and he will, he puts himself “all in” for celebrating the task and overseeing the transition of the tribes into a nation. Let this also be a lesson for us in moving forward from stress or powerlessness to power and effective change.
Rabbi Vered L. Harris, RJE is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, OK. She appreciates how our ancient texts continue to speak to our modern experiences.
In her reading of Parashat Korach, Rabbi Harris posits that, though Korach’s actions are often interpreted as jealous power-seeking behavior, his behavior actually reflects feelings of helplessness and being disenfranchised. Perhaps it is a little bit of both. While Korach fancies himself a revolutionary who wants to change the priestly system, what he proposes is not anything new at all but instead the perpetuation of an old system. Rather than create a culture of collaborative leadership — of power with, instead of power over — Korach seems only to want to usurp Moses and Aaron’s power and seat himself as the community’s leader.
But does the blame fall solely with Korach? Did Korach and his followers truly deserve to be swallowed up by the earth, as was their punishment for speaking out against Moses and Aaron? (Numbers 16:28-34). Could this fate have been avoided entirely? Indeed, though Korach’s hubris contributes to his demise, Moses’ leadership in this situation leaves much to be desired.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his commentary on Parashat Korach, just two parashiyot earlier, Moses displays a great deal of generosity of spirit towards Eldad and Medad when Joshua becomes worried about their prophesying. Moses says to Joshua, “‘Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Eternal’s people were prophets, that the Eternal put [the divine] spirit upon them!’” (Numbers 11:29). In his encounter with Korach, on the other hand, Moses immediately falls on his face and treats Korach with skepticism and contempt. (Numbers 16:4). Some commentators suggest that this is because Moses reads through Korach’s words and realizes that he is really only motivated by a desire to increase his personal power. Ultimately, regardless of Moses’ reasons for treating Korach so harshly, he misses an opportunity to speak with Korach and try to understand his desire for power, which well may have resulted from feelings of helplessness and disenfranchisement.
Had he taken those concerns seriously, Moses could have ushered in a new era of collaborative leadership. By exerting his power over Korach by testing him and ignoring his concerns, death and destruction followed.
Certainly, in our own day, we are seeing the destructive consequences of not taking seriously the concerns of those who feel disenfranchised. By ignoring their interests and demands — regardless of whether we find them legitimate or even if we find them offensive — we perpetuate a system in which one group has power over another. Nothing can be accomplished because of increasing alienation and divisiveness. Rather than falling on our faces or turning our faces away entirely, we have an opportunity to listen and call them into a process of mutual understanding and creative problem solving. Perhaps, if we all listen more and assume less, we will find our shared divinity and harness our collective power to create the world we want to live in.
Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer is the education director at HIAS.
Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127−1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001−1,017
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 893–914
Haftarah, I Samuel 11:14−12:22
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,265−1,267; Revised Edition, pp. 1,019−1,021