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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-19) – The art of complaining

>When I was first flying back from Los Angeles to London I booked an American Airlines flight via New York. I was less than thrilled about the marathon journey which would get me home. At LAX airport everything appeared fine. We boarded the plane and waited, and waited … and waited. It was then that we were told to disembark due to an onboard problem. As we sat in the airport terminal it got later and later, and I realised I would miss the last connection to London. I ventured up to the American Airlines desk and called Micol to tell her about the situation. She was very clear to me about how I should complain; be polite, firm and fair (she’s seen me get upset before). I followed her advice and found myself reseated on a direct flight to London, in first class, and I was very happy.

This week Moses has to deal with another complaint. It might seem like the Israelites have been complaining ever since we crossed the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14). At Marah the water was bitter (Exodus 15:23-27), at Sin they complained that there was no food (Exodus 16:1-4), and they’ve continued complaining almost every step of the way.

This week the complaint is not from the entire congregation; instead Korach, the man who gives his name to the Torah Portion, steps forward, together with a group of 250 Israelite leaders, to voice their dissatisfaction. The whole thing gets of to a bad start as ‘they rose up before Moses’ (Numbers 16:2). They did not ‘come before Moses’ or approach him, ‘they rose up’ as though preparing for a confrontation. It is the same verb which is used when the angels set of to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16), a worrying precursor.

Korach’s complaint may have had some underlying legitimacy: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?’ (Numbers 16:3). After all, it is not the first time we have heard that Moses was overworked and overburdened.

The last person to have a Torah portion named after himself was Yitro, who came before Moses and said to him: ‘The thing that you do is not good. You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone’ (Exodus 18:17-18). The sentiment is not so far removed from Korach’s, however, its delivery and the intention behind it is completely different.

Yitro offered Moses critical feedback so that he would be able to do his job better, and serve the Israelite community more effectively. Korach rose up before Moses out of self-interest, and with an agenda for his personal aggrandisement. While his message that Moses was overburdened may still have been correct, he delivered it as an aggressive criticism, rather than a piece of constructive feedback. Korach allowed his personal agenda to overshadow his point and permitted his anger to silence the core message.

Korach’s reward for his insubordination was to be swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:32). A new punishment was devised for this man, who challenged Moses’ right to leadership. He may well have been correct that Moses was overburdened, but he shared his complaint in such a way as to deny himself any legitimacy. In contrast Yitro’s feedback leads to an entire reorganisation of the judicial system.

I don’t think I would have been swallowed up by the earth if I had complained more aggressively or more vehemently to the American Airlines assistant, but I am sure I would not have been upgraded to first class. There is a way to complain and there is a way not to complain. Korach was unfortunate not to have Micol whispering in his ear, before he brought his challenge to Moses, things might have turned out very differently.

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