What leaders and protesters owe each other


By Rabbi Daniel Plotkin

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah reading is Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32.

In the Torah portion Korach, we see an Israelite community in great disarray. As a result of being sentenced to 39 additional years in the desert, Moses and Aaron fend off complaints among the people, the most famous one being that raised by Korach.


Less known, but ultimately more destructive to the community, is the similar and concurrent rebellion of Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben. They accuse Moses and Aaron of holding themselves higher, more holy, than the rest of the community. Of course this is true, but that status came directly from God.

Korah and his followers agree to meet in a sort of spiritual duel against Moses and Aaron. While they may be wrong, they at least had the courage of their convictions and are willing to face off against Moses and Aaron in a test of holiness, during which they are wiped out by a divine fire.

Much more destructive to the community is the reaction of Dathan and Abiram and their followers. After their initial complaint, they return to their tents and their families,
refusing to come out and face up to what they have done. They stay hidden away, fomenting dissent and rebellion, but declining to actually face those they accuse. As a result of this, Dathan and Abiram are swallowed up by the earth, along with their families, followers and anyone else who happened to be in the area.

We are living in a time of great dissent, seeing protests and complaints, first over social distancing restrictions and more recently over issues of racial justice. These disagreements are inevitable. How our leaders respond to protest, and how the
protestors respond to efforts to resolve issues, makes a world of difference.

Moses did not shy away from either of these protests. Rather than retreating into the bunker of the tent of meeting, he invited the leaders of both rebellions before him. Only Korach accepted. While Korach met his own unpleasant end, his descendants not only survived, but became key parts of the religious life of the Israelites. Dathan and Abiram refused to face the issues head on; their lines were removed from history.

Today, too, we can expect our leaders to deal directly with challenges facing them, and that those who disagree try to be part of the solution when the leadership is open to change (ideally avoiding a showdown like Korach vs. Moses). Whether we are a part of the leadership or part of the protest, it is when we treat those with whom we disagree as people and speak to them as such, that we are able to move society in a way that benefits all.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin is rabbi-educator at Temple Isaiah.

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