Moses the Man

Korah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 19, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

Nowhere does the Torah provide us with a single, well-rounded profile of the figure who dominates most of its narrative. We, its readers, need to gather for ourselves the traits of Moses, alluded to in piecemeal fashion, into an integrated profile. Plot mediates the contours of character. Last week, for example, the Torah depicted Moses as the most humble of men in recounting the recriminations brought against him publicly by his own brother and sister (Numbers 12). In the stories from the time before he ascended to the leadership of his nation, he exhibits a deep-seated inability to countenance acts of injustice (Exodus 2:11-13, 16-17; 3:7-9). Given to outbursts of anger against the inconstancy of the Israelites (Exodus 32:19-28), he also is moved repeatedly by compassion to intercede with God on behalf of those who have transgressed (Exodus 32:30-32; Numbers 12:13; 14:11-20).

In this week’s parashah, we catch sight of yet another side of Moses’ character: his refusal to exploit his position and power for personal gain. Korah and his disgruntled flock rise in protest against the leadership of Moses, couching their case in democratic rhetoric. To paraphrase: We are all holy with equal access to God who resides in our midst. On what grounds do you presume to exercise authority over us (Numbers 16:3)? The aspersion suggests an abuse of power, which Moses finds particularly galling, and he complains bitterly to God: “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them” (16:15).

Long before Lord Acton, Moses was acutely mindful that power can readily corrupt even religious leaders. And so was the Prophet Samuel. In his final address to the nation at its cultic center in Gilgal, which fittingly constitutes the haftarah to our parashah, Samuel insists that his long reign as judge and prophet was marked by the same high degree of probity: “Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you” (I Samuel 12:3). Fortunately, our text preserves the wholehearted concurrence of his audience: “You have not defrauded us, and you have not robbed us, and you have taken nothing from anyone” (12:4). The haftarah amplifies the standard set by Moses: The conduct of the nation’s welfare must be untainted by any trace of venality.

Samuel’s discourse throbbed with angst. As his days drew to an end, he had reluctantly agreed to the public’s urgent demand for the introduction of a monarchy. Whatever the justification, he feared an inevitable national estrangement from God and aggrandizement of the monarchy. The line between what was good for the nation and what was good for the king would soon become blurred. Nor could he envision a system of checks and balances that might restrict royal greed (I Samuel 8:11-18).

The Torah, though more positive about the institution of kingship, did try to curb its authority. The monarchy was to be a modest affair. By law, the king was forbidden to indulge in the accumulation of horses, wives, and wealth, which threatened to impair his piety, judgment, and sense of fairness. Moreover, only an Israelite kinsman could occupy the throne because, I suspect, only a native was deemed to command the compassion and responsibility to place national interests above his own. Finally, the king was obligated personally to make a copy of the book of Deuteronomy (which serves as a summary of the entire Torah) and keep it by his side for constant study, the purpose of which was to bring him to fear God and sustain his love for his people. The Torah internalized would engender a constitutional monarchy (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

By the third century of the Common Era, with rabbinic leadership in ascendancy in Roman Palestine, Rabbi Yohanan, who led the academies in Sepphoris and Tiberias for decades, sharpened the qualifications necessary for religious leadership. He claimed to derive from the fragmented profile of Moses in the Torah that God would single out individuals for prophecy only if they possessed strength, wisdom, wealth, and humility (BT Nedarim 38a). For the prerequisite of personal wealth, which I find most interesting, Rabbi Yohanan cites the verse in our parashah that states Moses never had the need to avail himself of anything that belonged to an Israelite, even for reimbursement. That is, Moses was rich and self-sufficient. In other words: To guard against greed and venality in public office, religious or otherwise, requires that the candidate be without want. Poverty is a condition that can subvert piety.

The discussion posits a correlation between character and competence. In the spirit of Ben Zomah, however, character is a function of self-control (Pirkei Avot 4:1). Before we are entitled to exercise control over others, we must attain control over ourselves. Thus, it is the readiness to learn from anyone that marks a wise person who has transmuted arrogance into open-mindedness. It is contentment with one’s portion that defines a rich person in whom greed has been tempered. And, it is the conquest of our passions that denotes true strength. In each case, the attribute is not an attainment external to ourselves, such as a body of knowledge or money or physical prowess, but an inner state of mind.

The story is told by Rabbi Israel Lifshitz of Danzig in his great nineteenth-century commentary to the Mishnah, Tiferet Yisrael (Kiddushin 4:13), that the king of Arabia had heard of the astonishing victory of Moses over the Egyptians and wanted to take the measure of the man. He sent his finest painter to the Israelite camp to secretly do a portrait. Upon his return, the king summoned his wise men to interpret the likeness of the man. But instead of depicting a man of many virtues commensurate with his appearance, the wise men spoke of a deeply flawed character prone to arrogance, lust, cruelty, and ruthlessness.

Dismayed, the king traveled to confront Moses face to face. Granted an audience, he recounted the deep discrepancy in perception between his wise men and the painter, who in fact had captured the visage of Moses with uncanny accuracy. Moses responded in candor and appreciation. Both the wise men and the painter were right: What the former detected was Moses’s nature at birth: selfish, acquisitive, domineering, and unscrupulous. What the latter painted is what he had become by dint of constant struggle. Moses’s renown was due to the fact that he had been able to rework his base inclinations into their very opposite. Both levels of his being coexisted, but the good prevailed.

I confess I like the truth and hopefulness of this message. Ever ready to lay the blame for our shortcomings elsewhere, we demand far less of ourselves than we are capable of. Self-discipline is the only way to imbue our character with beauty and, indeed, to draw God into our lives.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Korah have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.