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B'Midbar/Numbers 16:2 And they arose before Moshe, and men from the Sons of Israel ...
Who is the 'they' that starts this text? The first verse of the parasha tells us: Korah, Dathan and Abiram, together with the men that they had gathered around them. The essence of their argument: "You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the L-RD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the L-RD?" (B'Midbar 16:3, ESV). This sounds like an early pro-democracy movement - power to the people - only it seems to be driven by Korah, who is himself a member of an elite group, the Levites, and Dathan and Abiram who seem to be at least connected to some of the tribal chieftains, well-known men. Perhaps this isn't a "one man one vote" proposal, a grass-roots class uprising by the disenfranchised, so much as a power struggle originated by a group of people who already have some significant position but not as much as they would like!
The word - literally "to the faces of", but usually translated "before" or "in the presence of" - is used in the Hebrew text to describe how the uprising started. While the normal Aramaic equivalent would be ,Targum Onkelos instead chooses a more direct translation - "to the face" to emphasise what is happening. The usual word would suggest a degree of respect, while the one chosen draws attention to Korah's arrogance. Drazin and Wagner comment that " Targum Jonathan and the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 99a) mention Korah's arrogance explicitly." Ibn Ezra opts for "openly" in his translation. This is not a quiet word in private, but a brazen public challenge to the authority and office of Aharon as High Priest, Moshe who ordained him and HaShem who ordered it to be that way.
Jacob Milgrom writes that the theme of the whole parasha is encroachment on the Tabernacle. The first stage is the Korahite uprising, ended by the priestly aspirants being consumed by fire before the L-rd, then the earth opens up to swallow Dathan and Abiram and their entire families. Next, after moaning about the death of the chieftains, a deadly plague strikes the people and finally the battle of the budding staff is needed to confirm the divine choice and end the debate. Almost as a post-script, Aharon and the priests are made responsible for maintaining the security and sanctity of the Tabernacle and its ritual: "You and your sons and the ancestral house under your charge shall bear any guilt connected with the sanctuary; you and your sons alone shall bear any guilt connected with your priesthood ... you and your sons shall be careful to perform your priestly duties in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain. I make your priesthood a service of dedication; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death" (B'Midbar 18:1,7, JPS). Any further trouble will be on their tab, so they had better get it right!
The gospels contain an incident where the disciples jockey for position within their group. Matthew records it as having started with an archetypical Jewish mother promoting her sons: "Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him. And He said to her, 'What do you wish?' She said to Him, 'Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.'" (Matthew 20:20-21, NASB), while Luke suggests that it was simply a squabble between the boys: "And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest" (Luke 22:24, NASB). Yeshua responds in both accounts with the comment that, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you" (Matthew 20:26, NASB), but then the writers diverge slightly. Matthew has Yeshua say, "Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:26-28, NASB), while Luke puts these words in Yeshua's mouth: "But let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves" (Luke 22:26-27, NASB). Very similar words, but while Matthew talks of the potential leaders aspirations and the way they should realise them - if you want to be a leader, do this - Luke uses an allusion to the switch in primogeniture that G-d performs four times in the lives of the patriarchs1 to describe the behaviour of those whom G-d has already chosen - you are a leader, so do this. Whereas Luke confirms that Yeshua is "the one reclining at the table" and so already the greater, Matthew suggests that Yeshua is - at least in part - earning His greatness by "giving His life as a ransom".
The question of who is or is not a leader, whose teaching carries the greater weight or anointing, which decisions have the more authority, continue to echo through the church and the synagogue, from the earliest times until today. The Jewish world debates whether one should wear tefillin constructed according toRashi, or according to his grandson, Rabbenu Tam2; both being undoubted scholars, the Shulchan Aruch3 requires Rashi's and recommends both for G-d-fearing and pious Jews. The church pits John Calvin against John Wesley, Whitfield against Spurgeon and many others. None of these scholars sought conflict with other G-d-fearing leaders and teachers, but their followers continue their arguments, using them as a source for division and dispute within our communities.
It is time to revisit Rav Sha'ul's words: "For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Romans 12:3-5, NASB). The L-rd provides different leaders and teachers, at many different levels - denomination, church/synagogue, house/cell-group - for the building up of the whole body. We are all called to play our part in this process, serving those for whom we have been given responsibility, according to the faith, skills and experience that we have been given. We should all be seeking to grow in our individual relationship with the L-rd and in the ministry that He has given us. If we are not growing in both areas, then we need to pay more attention to our study, prayer and practical serving for this is how we grow: receiving from the L-rd and sharing with others. We cannot, we dare not, show arrogance to one another: "I'm the leader", implying "and you are not", is no way for us to behave.
Our attitude is important. Why do we want to serve others? Is it from genuine concern for them, a desire to see them growing and moving forward for their own sakes? Or is our service - sharing the gospel, bringing people to faith, counselling, teaching - a means to an end: moving up the ladder in the kingdom? Knowing who you are and are called to be is one thing; correctly used, our calling gives us perspective and motivation. Simply using others as a means of achieving personal growth, even if they happen to benefit in the process is another. Rav Sha'ul again: "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV). Yeshua Himself came to serve and save His people; He didn't allow anything to get in the way of His task and put everything - His own life - on the line so that G-d's purposes should be fulfilled in Him. We can do no less.
1 - G-d chooses the younger over the older, thus setting aside the normal rules of first-born inheritance: Yitz'khak over Ishmael, Ya'acov over Esav, Judah over Reuben, and Manasseh over Ephraim.
2 - Jacob ben Meir, 1100-1171, one of the most renowned French Tosafists and a foremost halachic authority of his generation.
3 - The most authoritative legal code in Judaism, authored in Safed, Israel, by Yosef Karo in 1563.
Further Study: Ephesians 4:1-7; Romans 15:15-21
Application: Do you share with others willingly and graciously, or are you more of an "in your face" I-need-to-tell-you person? Do you serve others out of love or ambition? Why not take your motives to G-d today and ask Him to help you make sure you are on the right side.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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