I started to think about this week’s Torah Portion reading about a recent meeting between two of the most important leaders in the world. The President of the US and the President of Russia were discussing the problem of rebellious journalists, the sort of people who accuse leaders of taking too much on themselves – you know, the same sort of complaint that Korach and his fellow rebels launched against Moses.
“Get rid of them.” Said President Trump, “You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do,”
President Putin replied, “We also have. It’s the same.”
It’s not funny. 58 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1992 and President Putin has been accused of complicity. It’s better in the States – but Presidential Trump called the Montana Congressman who body slammed a journalist in May 2017 “my guy.” The Committee to Protect Journalists have a web site with details of the investigative journalists variously arrested for treason, beaten up and worse. My family are journalists. I have a soft spot for journalists. And I don’t think journalists should be beaten up, arrested for treason or worse.
I get that journalists, especially investigative journalists who poke their nose into the business of powerful rulers can annoy those rulers. I can understand that rulers might wish that these journalists would get swallowed up by the earth, a bit like Moses wanted Korach and his gang to get swallowed up by the earth.
I even understand that Moses is under the pressures of leadership and Korach was annoying and offensive and could have made the same point more politely. But, surely, the point of being a powerful leader isn’t that you get to be able to call down all the might at your disposal to get those who disagree with you swallowed up by the earth.
Moses takes Korach’s rebellion seriously. He challenges the rebels to a face-off on the following day. Each side are to bring fire-pans before God at the Sanctuary and God will demonstrate who God has chosen. The next day Moses turns to the rebels and warns them to stand down. Then he warns those who remain, ‘God is about to show whom God has chosen,’ he says. And no sooner has Moses finished speaking than the earth opens up and the rebels die.
Here’s the problem, isn’t Moses, well, a bit tyrannical?
Doesn’t he sound a bit like the sort of powerful leader who makes journalists disappear? Well that’s not good. I get uncomfortable with this story. And I’m interested in reading it in a way that doesn’t make the most important person in the Bible – the leader who led us out of Egypt and received Torah from God sound a bit like a dictator who makes those who disagree with him disappear.
Maybe there is a clue in the strange test that Moses suggests.
Everyone is to take their fire-pans. Machtato – comes from the Hebrew word to scoop up coals from a fire. You scoop up coals and then place spices on the coals which burn giving up a sweet scent – incense.
Now it might be that you’ve never really stopped to think about fire-pans in your 21st Century life, but close Bible readers have encountered fire pans before. On the day the Sanctuary was dedicated Aron takes his fire-pan and uses it to bring an offering of incense in the Sanctuary. It’s a great moment, spoiled just a moment later when Nadav and Avihu get so excited about using their fire-pans that they rush into the Sanctuary with, what the Torah calls a strange fire. And they are burnt up.
Rashi – the greatest of Biblical commentators -  suggests that when Moses tells the rebels to take fire-pans, of all things, he’s warning them – Hitra Lahem – Sam Mevet Nitan Betocho – there’s spices there, but it’s a spice that can cause death. Korach and his company surely would seen Nadav and Avihu dying with their fire-pans in their hands. They surely should have known they were – quite literally – playing with fire.
Moses isn’t trying, at first, to get his opposition killed, he’s trying to get them to realise they are messing with something dangerous. When he the tells people to back down he’s not trying to maximise the number of people who are going to get destroyed. He’s trying to make them realise they have picked the wrong side.
Maybe that’s why the show down is set for the next day – Moses wants to give the rebels the opportunity to calm down. Actually, in the Rabbis’ mind one of the rebels is calmed down – he starts off as part of the rebellion, but doesn’t go through with it.
But Korach, Data and Abiram are fixated on rebelling. There’s another clue in the Rashi – hi ketoret chavivah michol hakorbanot – this incense is the most beloved of all the offerings. I mean, of course it is. The offering of incense on these fire-pans doesn’t involve killing animals and butchering. Incense smells great and it glows, there’s fire – who doesn’t love fire.
So, here’s my interpretation of what happened.
The rebels rebel. And Moses tries to warn them off – remember the fire-pans, he tells them. What he meant is that the fire-pans contain the possibility of death if mis-used, that’s what happened with Nadav and Avihu.
He tries again – let’s do this tomorrow, sleep on in, come to your senses.
But the rebels don’t hear the warning. Instead they hear they can play with the best toy in the toybox. The one which smells great, and glows. And they miss the point of Moses’ warning. They are so excited about the fire-pans they can’t hear that they are making a mistake.
The next day Moses warns anyone who doesn’t want to get caught up in the whole thing to back down, and the smart ones do, but the ones who are just so captivated with the whole idea of the fire-pans don’t. And at that point Moses realises they are gone. Korach’s rebellion isn’t a cautionary tale for those who are interested in decent investigative journalism – it’s about the dangers of people who say they want to lead because they like the shiny stuff.
Now it still might be that Moses is a little too punchy for my taste, a little too quick to want to dispatch his accusers to be swallowed up by the earth, but I think this interpretation helps a bit.
In this retelling of the story the problem is the rebels not realising they have missed the point. The point of leading the people in the desert isn’t that you get to dress in the fancy-clothes of the High priest and it isn’t that you get to use the fire pan to bring the most beloved of all the offerings. Leadership is about responsibility and making tough decisions when you can’t please all the people all the time. Leadership isn’t easy. It’s not about the fun stuff.
Perhaps the real lesson of the Korach story is how easy it is to be misled by the sparkly stuff. There’s a famous line in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where one of the suitors for the heart of the beautiful and wise Portia is asked to chose a box that symbolises what he deserves. He choses the box with gold. But it’s the wrong box. ‘All that glisters,’ he says, ‘is not gold.’ The secret to living a good life isn’t chasing after the surface sparkly stuff, the nice smelling stuff. The secret to living a good life is to listen hard, reflect carefully and be prepared to give up on getting the sparkly sweet-smelling stuff.
Maybe watching who is most excited about the chasing the shiny and the sweetest smelling parts of a life is a way to see who NOT to trust. Here’s a story from later in the Hebrew bible. King Solomon is sitting as a judge when two women come before him arguing about who is the real mother of a small child they both claim as their own. There’s no DNA testing and the two women have definitely had two children, but one has died. To whom does the other belong. ‘Cut the baby in half and they can both take a half’ says Solomon. One woman pleads with the king not to kill the baby. The other woman wants to take the better half – the half with the head. That’s the give-away.
There are a lot of wannabe leaders competing for our attention in these strange times; from Israel to America and even our own fair island. Watch out for those who desire for the sweet-smelling stuff, leadership is tough. And in our own lives we would do well to remember not to be distracted by the fire-pans. They may glitter, but that’s not the best path to follow.