Parashat Korach is not just about rebels; it also affords us a look at different models of leadership. Both Moshe and Aharon are attacked. The latter remains markedly silent during the confrontation while Moshe defends both his position and his brother’s. Aharon’s response, as we will see, comes later and in a different form.
Moshe’s response is all about proving who is right and who is wrong. He speaks to, or more accurately, at, Korach but not with him. He summons Datan and Aviram but does not go to them. He makes no attempt to genuinely engage his opposition, to listen to them and try to understand their complaints or their motivations. He points out Korach’s hypocrisy, noting that he is not after equality for the people but leadership for himself. And while Moshe may be completely correct in this point, revealing this truth will hardly win Korach – or even the people – over.
Moshe may be rightfully hurt that the people are shifting the blame for their failures and their current predicament onto him, but calling out to God and focusing on the wrongness of that claim rather than the people’s reality gets him nowhere. In the end, Moshe demands a showdown with one ultimate winner and one ultimate loser, and the consequences are drastic and deadly: truth wins out, but its price is the complete destruction of the other side.
This is one way of approaching conflict, but it will not necessarily lead to the best results. Here, the focus is on a narrow, abstract truth, not the deeper truth of human beings, human emotions and motivations, societal realities, or interpersonal relationships. An approach such as this can even be quite counter-productive.
What is the aftermath of Moshe’s proofs? Are the people satisfied now that they know he was right and Korach was wrong? Quite the contrary: “But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord'” (Bamidbar, 16:41). The people do not see justice in Moshe’s actions; his response was too violent, even if he was right. And perhaps the people aren’t even sure in the end that Korach was wrong. They still refer to him and his followers as “the people of the Lord.” It is hard not to hear an echo of Korach’s claim that “All the people are holy and the Lord is in their midst” (16:3). The people were taken with Korach’s vision, and they remain sympathetic to it. Moshe might have proven once and for all who was right, but the people-who exist on an emotional and psychological plane-may still feel that Korach was innocent, even right in some ways, and that he was killed unjustly.
Here is where Aharon comes in. On Moshe’s direction, Aharon runs into the middle of the people and puts incense on the fire censer, staying the plague that was decimating the people. Rashi notes that the incense has an opposite effect here than it had earlier, bringing life now rather than death. But the point is larger than the effect of the incense, for the incense represents closeness to God. Closeness to God, if approached incorrectly, can lead to death. We saw this earlier with Nadav and Avihu and their wrongly offered incense, and we see it here with the story of the 250 men. But closeness to God can also bring life: “Seek me out and live,” says God (Amos, 5:4). Whether this closeness brings life or death has to do with how we approach God, but it also has to do with how God approaches us.
The Rabbis speak of two aspects of the Divine: the side of Judgment and the side of Compassion. When God interacts with us in the mode of Judgment, every misstep is noted and punished accordingly. To use a gendered stereotype, we may think of this as the mode of the stern father. But there is also the mode of the forgiving, understanding mother, the mode of Compassion. Operating in this mode, God looks to find ways to connect, to nurture and give life, rather than focusing on an exact sense of right and wrong or on missteps and failures.
These two modes are paralleled in two types of leadership: that of Moshe and that of Aharon. Moshe’s leadership was one of judgment, of right and wrong. Aharon’s leadership was one of compassion, of forgiveness and understanding. This is vividly illustrated in God’s response to the people’s outcry. God tells Moshe to take twelve staves and to place them by the ark, one for each tribe, including Aharon’s staff for the tribe of Levi. Moshe does so, and by the next day, Aharon’s staff had blossomed and brought forth almonds. This, the Torah tells us, demonstrated that Aharon and his tribe had been chosen.
But how did this miracle accomplish anything more than the previous miracles? On an intellectual plane it added nothing, but on an emotional level, it made its point through beauty and life, not through destruction and death. It showed that leadership – as symbolized by the staff – should be nurturing and life-giving. If attached to its original source of life, the same stick that can be used as a rod to smite can also be a living branch, the source of flourishing and growth. The miracle of the staff demonstrated to the people and to Moshe that a different type of leadership was possible. Let us not forget that Moshe’s sin at the end of the forty years was that he continued to use the staff as a rod, smiting the rock rather than talking to it.
This is not to say that the approach of Aharon can exist by itself. The staff must be both a rod and a branch. In the end, we need both a father’s sternness and a mother’s compassion. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (6b) addresses this in its discussion of whether a judge should strive for justice (din) or compromise (peshara). It associates the former with Moshe and the latter with Aharon:
Such was Moshes’ motto: Let the law pierce the mountain. Aharon, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, “The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity” (Malakhi, 2:6).
Now truth and peace are not always compatible. The famous Midrash tells how Aharon would pursue peace: When two people were fighting, Aharon would approach each one individually, saying, “Your friend wants to make up with you, but he is too embarrassed to come and apologize.” This would evoke sympathetic feelings, and the next time they met, the two would embrace and make up. This is the way of peace, but it is not exactly the way of truth: white lies were necessary to achieve the end.
The world needs judgment and compromise, truth and peace. We may have to choose between the two, but the choice is not necessarily either/or. Maharsha already notes that the verse regarding Aharon and peace also states that “the law of truth was in his lips.” Peace can be integrated with truth. In halakhic literature this is referred to as peshara krova li’din, a compromise which approximates the just resolution. This integration can come in terms of proportions, some elements of a decision being based on the letter of the law and others on compromise. It might also come in terms of a larger perspective. Truth does not exist solely in terms of abstract realities or the letter of the law; it can also incorporate equity, fairness, the condition of human relationships, and societal well-being. When Aharon said, “Your friend wants to make up with you,” he was not lying. He was communicating a deeper, human truth.
Peace by itself, if it fully sacrifices truth, is also a perversion. It was Aharon’s desire to find peace that led to his giving into the people at the Sin of the Golden Calf. We must strive for peace as the ultimate goal, but it must be a peace that approximates and integrates truth.
As it is with leadership, so it is with our interpersonal relationships. How many couples waste needless hours and emotional angst, at times even fracturing, over pointless arguments about who is right and who is wrong? What larger truth is achieved by demonstrating that one is right about a trivial detail? On the other hand, never standing for anything and simply giving in all the time leads to resentment and a compromise of one’s sense of self. The goal is to seek out the larger truth, one that incorporates not just abstract questions of fact but also the truths of human emotions and human relationships. “‘Kindness and Truth have met up’ [Tehilim, 85]: This is Moshe and Aharon” (Shemot Rabbah, 5:10).