Originally published June 2015
Korach is not just about rebels; it also portrays 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 comes later and in a different form.
Moshe’s response is about proving who is right and wrong. He speaks at Korach but not with him. He summons Datan and Aviram but does not go to them. He makes no attempt to engage his opposition, to listen and try to understand their complaints or 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 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 current predicament onto him, but focusing on the wrongness of that claim rather than the people’s reality gets him nowhere. Moshe demands a showdown with one winner and one loser, and the consequences are deadly: truth wins, but its price is the destruction of the other side.
This is one way of approaching conflict, but it will not necessarily lead to the best results. The focus is on a narrow, abstract truth, not the deeper truth of societal realities, interpersonal relationships, or emotions and motivations. This can even be counter-productive.
What is the aftermath of Moshe’s proofs? Are the people satisfied now they know he was right and Korach wrong? On the contrary: “But on the morrow the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and 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. And perhaps the people aren’t even sure 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 “All the people are holy and the Lord is in their midst” (16:3). The people were taken with Korach’s vision, and remain sympathetic. Moshe might have proven who was right, but the people—who exist on an emotional and psychological plane—may still feel Korach was innocent 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 decimating the people. Rashi notes the incense has an opposite effect here than earlier, bringing life rather than death. But the point is larger than the effect of incense, for 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, and 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. But there is also the mode of forgiving, understanding, the mode of Compassion—God looks to find ways to connect, to nurture and give life, rather than focusing on an exact sense of right and wrong.
These modes are paralleled in Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership styles. Moshe’s was one of judgment, of right and wrong. Aharon’s was compassionate, forgiving and understanding. This is 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 per tribe, including Aharon’s for the tribe of Levi. By the next day, Aharon’s had blossomed and brought forth almonds. This, the Torah tells us, demonstrated Aharon and his tribe had been chosen.
This is not to say the approach of Aharon can exist alone. The staff must be both a rod and a branch. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (6b) addresses this in its discussion 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 and pursued peace and made peace between people, 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).
Truth and peace are not always compatible. The Midrash tells how Aharon would pursue peace: When people were fighting, Aharon would approach each one individually, saying, “Your friend wants to make up, but is too embarrassed to apologize.” This evoked 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, but the choice is not necessarily either/or. Peace can be integrated with truth. In halakhic literature this is referred to as peshara krova li’din, a compromise approximating the just resolution. Truth does not exist solely in terms of abstract realities or the letter of the law; it also incorporates equity, fairness, condition of human relationships, and societal well-being. When Aharon said, “Your friend wants to make up” he was not lying. He was communicating a deeper, human truth.
As it is with leadership, so it is with interpersonal relationships. How many couples waste needless hours and emotional angst, at times even fracturing, over pointless arguments about who is right? What larger truth is achieved by demonstrating that one is wrong about a trivial detail? On the other hand, never standing for anything and giving in leads to resentment and a compromise of one’s sense of self. The goal is to seek out the larger truth, incorporating not just abstract questions of fact but also truths of human emotions and human relationships. “‘Kindness and Truth have met up’. [Tehilim 85]: This is Moshe and Aharon” (Shemot Rabbah, 5:10).