Korach, Christianity and Kayin: The Power of the Soundbite in Political Discourse

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We were in Toronto last Shabbat, and early Sunday morning we drove back to Oceanside. Yael and I take turns when we drive and after we crossed the border into the United States, Yael drove for a few hours. About a half an hour after she started driving, a police car was behind us with lights flashing. We pulled over to the side of the road. The police officer was very nice, but he told Yael that she was speeding, so he came back with a ticket. We weren’t thrilled about receiving the ticket, but we continued the drive and drove home. Baruch Hashem, this is a rare occurrence for us, and when I got back home, I wanted to look at the ticket and speak to a traffic attorney and see what the best course of action was. Hopefully, we can try to negotiate to pay a fine and not get any points on our driving record. I look at the ticket and I kid you not. I’m reading. Last name of the defendant “Moskowitz.” First name of the defendant “Yaakov.” Number and Street, City – some address in Brooklyn. It has listed his ID number or driver’s license and presumably his date of birth. But the car and make and model are the Honda Pilot, the car we were driving. The time of the violation is the time that we were pulled over. The violation was speeding. All the information about the speeding ticket was correct – our car, the name of the police officer, the nature of the traffic violation and the location of the traffic violation. All the information was correct. Except that I guess I’m married to Yaakov Moskowitz because I know that my wife was driving and she was pulled over. Of course, it makes sense that the cop made this mistake. After all, Yael Muskat is a Jew and Yaakov Moskowitz is a Jew, so it’s easy to mix up Muskat and Moskowitz. I have no clue how this happened, but the error in the ticket highlights how easy it is for facts to become distorted, which could lead to unjust consequences.

We live in a world of an alternate reality, where truth is under attack, where facts are distorted with ease and I want to talk this morning not about America but about Israel. There is a really excellent podcast that I highly recommend about the situation in Israel. It’s called "Call Me Back" and the host if Don Senor. In a recent episode, he discussed how Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has been so pleasantly surprised by the level of support Hamas has received since October 7th, despite the fact that it is a terrorist organization that has as one of its core values a mandate to destroy the State of Israel. Sinwar's surprise highlights a troubling reality: a terrorist organization can successfully use soundbites about freedom and oppression to convince others that their nefarious plans are justified. This phenomenon seems illogical and disturbing, but like many modern-day phenomena, this has roots dating back thousands of years.

Do you know who was a Biblical master of soundbites? Korach. כי כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה׳ ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה׳. He challenged Moshe’s leadership with a powerful and seemingly righteous claim: “For all the congregation are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?” (Bamidbar 16:3). Everyone is holy – great soundbite. Why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly – another great soundbite. Korach preaches holiness. Korach preaches equality. Korach abhors arrogance. The truth is that Korach is merely echoing a similar sentiment uttered by Moshe two parshiyot ago when Eldad and Medad were prophesizing in the camp. Moshe said,   - וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יְקֹוָק֙ נְבִיאִ֔ים כִּי־יִתֵּ֧ן יְקֹוָ֛ק אֶת־רוּח֖וֹ עֲלֵיהֶֽםit would be great if the whole nation was comprised of prophets that God will place His spirit upon them. Moshe believes in the greatness of everyone so Korach perhaps seizes on Moshe’s statement and says, yes, I agree with you. We are all holy. We should all be prophets. So, Moshe, you are taking too much power for yourself. Moshe, there is the oppressed and the oppressor. You, Moshe, because you are privileged, you are the oppressor, and we are all the oppressed. 

Korach's rebellion stands as a testament to the deceptive power of words. He was able to rally 250 prominent men, described as נְשִׂיאֵ֥י עֵדָ֛ה קְרִאֵ֥י מוֹעֵ֖ד אַנְשֵׁי־שֵֽׁם  "princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown" (Bamidbar 16:2). Who were these individuals? These were students and faculty of some of the top Ivy League schools in ancient Mesopotamia. These chashuv Ivy League individuals, the "useful idiots" of their time, echoed the themes of oppression and privilege, questioning why there should be a privileged class and an oppressed one. After all, everyone is holy.

When Moshe sought to defend himself and God’s glory against Korach’s rebellion, he turned to God. The response was dramatic: the earth swallowed Korach and his followers, and fire consumed the 250 men offering incense. Despite this divine intervention, the people’s reaction was to blame Moshe and Aaron: They said, אתם המיתם את עמ ה׳” – “You have killed the people of God” (Bamidbar 17:6). Moshe is the aggressor! Moshe is committing genocide! 

Korach and his followers preached equality and holiness, but their true intentions were revealed through their alliance with Datan and Aviram, who lamented their departure from Egypt and sought to return. This unholy alliance aimed at the ultimate destruction of the Divine promise of an עם ישראל inארץ ישראל , a pious fraud that has echoed through the ages, reappearing in various forms throughout history.

Rav Kook understood the depth of Korach’s pious fraud. In Orot (Yisrael U’Techiyato, 16), he connects Korach’s rebellion to the broader historical context of religious deceit, comparing it to the founding of Christianity, which ridiculed the words of Chazal and wreaked inner havoc in the Jewish nation. Christianity also preached  כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה׳ . Christianity preached that everyone is holy. Everyone gets a star. Everyone gets the participation trophy. You don’t need to do that much to achieve salvation. Faith alone is sufficient. However, this ideology, like Korach’s ideology of superficial holiness, mocks the true essence of sanctity, which requires inner refinement and preparation. Yes, Moshe wished וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יְקֹוָק֙ נְבִיאִ֔ים. He wished that everyone would be a prophet, but it’s not automatic. You need to work hard to become a navi, or a leader. We are a holy nation, but that simply means that we have tremendous potential to unlock, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can be a leader.

Rav Kook also draws a parallel between Korach’s claims of universal holiness and the deceptive ideology of Kayin, who sought God’s favor while harboring inner wickedness. Kayin’s envy and ambition led him to murder Hevel, just as Korach’s envy of Moshe’s leadership led to his rebellion. Now the Arizal teaches that Korach and Moshe were gilgulim or reincarnations of Kayin and Hevel, respectively. I don’t fully understand how the mechanism of gilgul works, but there are clearly a number of parallels between Korach and Kayin. Kayin’s envy and ambition led him to murder Hevel, much like Korach’s envy of Moshe’s leadership led to his rebellion. The Torah uses similar language to describe the earth swallowing Korach as it did when it received Hevel’s blood, that the earth פצתה את פיה – that it opened its mouth. Kayin and Korach both represent the dangerous drive for power and recognition at the expense of truth and righteousness. Moshe, like Hevel, embodies humility.

In a sense, then, the story of Korach and Moshe is a reenactment of the story of Kayin and Hevel with one notable exception. The midrash in Breishit Rabbah (22:7) states that Kayin and Hevel divided the world with Hevel receiving movable objects and Kayin receiving all real estate. Then Kayin told Hevel that Hevel was trespassing on his property since he owned all the land and if he continues to do so then Kayin will protect his rights against Hevel. Rabbi Lamm points out that Hevel did not fight back against Kayin’s deceptive claims, so he was killed. However, Moshe pierced through Korach’s pretensions, revealing his true ambition for power. Moshe succeeded where Hevel failed.

On this Independence Day weekend, we stand at a pivotal crossroads, facing a crucial decision for the future of Israel and its relationship with America. We have a choice. We can behave like Hevel. We could resign ourselves to the notion that America's love for Israel is fading. We could resign ourselves that a distorted vision of reality, much worse that the mistake of my wife’s speeding ticket, is the new reality in this country and in this world, and we can accept this as our destiny. However, I urge you to consider an alternative path—one filled with hope, action, and faith, the path of Moshe.

The pro-Israel lobby’s recent victory in defeating Jamaal Bowman, a member of the Squad, in his re-election primary, serves as a powerful testament to our ability to influence and shape our destiny. This success is not merely a fleeting triumph but a beacon of what we can achieve when we stand united and resolute.

We have the power to support and elevate members of Congress who stand with Israel, rewarding their steadfast loyalty and commitment. Conversely, we can hold accountable those who oppose us, ensuring that their actions have consequences. This is not merely a political battle but a moral and spiritual one, reflecting our unwavering commitment toעם ישראל  and ארץ ישראל. The choice is ours. Let us draw strength from our history, from the resilience and courage that have defined our people for generations and choose the path of Moshe Rabbenu, and, with the help of God, we can and will prevail.