This midrash first appeared on Rabbi Bearman's website which can be accessed by clicking here.
“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them,
‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
I stand firm, inches from Moses, and watch as his face falls in response to my shouted challenge. Over Moses’ shoulder, I can see Aaron, shaking his head, obviously disappointed that I voiced my objection so strenuously, so loudly, so publicly.
Aaron’s eyes cut to Moses, and I feel my frustration grow at this evidence that Aaron’s first instinct will never be to listen because he will always seek to protect Moses’ authority. I’m not sure why I am surprised by his reaction, but I am.
I had addressed them as the leaders of our people and reminded them that we are all children of Eve. And yet their response was the same as it always has been- retreat, defend, dismiss. I watch as Aaron pats Moses’ shoulder, offering his brother the reassurance that he will “take care of this.”
My face twists into a sneer at the sight. I am no longer able or willing to hide my dismay, my derision.
In that moment, I am consumed by holy and righteous fire.
How dare these men act as if the world was created for them alone?
How dare they claim that they are the only ones that God cares for?
How dare they act as if they alone are holy?
How dare they pretend that when they cling to power, it is noble, but when others demand it, it is blasphemy?
How dare they?
I stand before them, before our people, and I burn but am not consumed.
Aaron shuffles over and tries to take my arm so that he can pull me toward his tent. “Cousin,” he hisses, “Surely it would be more productive to have this conversation in private.” I can tell that he doesn’t see the fire that burns in me; if he had seen the flames, he would have known that the fire was well past the point of being so easily doused.
I tear myself away from his hand and say with force and conviction, “Aaron, you misunderstand. This is not a conversation. Again and again, I have tried to tell you why it would be better for all of us if you shared your authority. You and Moses have not listened. Over and over, I have asked you both to consider what it means to deny power to so many of the Eternal’s people. You and Moses have refused to heed my words, and I am done asking.”
I turn and gesture to the hundreds of people who have gathered around us, “We are done asking. We are done waiting. It is clear that you will never see how much harm you are responsible for. You have grown too comfortable with your power. You and Moses have become Pharaohs, and so now we say to you: LET OUR PEOPLE GO! Free us from your tyranny.”
At last, Moses startles out of his shocked silence. Slowly, almost fearfully, he comes closer to me. He looks into my eyes for a moment, and I feel myself beginning to hope that the liberator who freed us from Egypt, the man who had helped crush oppression had returned to us. But then he says, “Korach, if you tell us what you and your followers want, we will do our best to give it to you.”
Every word that I spit back at him has been shaped by my fire, “We don’t want you to give us anything. We demand what is our due. We demand the freedom to speak to our God without your interference. We demand the ability to determine our own path forward. We demand that you step back and allow us to lead. You are not kings or gods that we must obey. Others can and must take up the mantle of leadership. You have had your chance to lead us, and look where you have brought us! We are lost in the wilderness! We will follow you no more.”
I can tell that Moses is shaken by the power in my voice, the power in my words. I watch him grapple with the fact that I have not come begging for his help and that I will not accept whatever bits of power he is willing to part with.
Aaron also sees that my words have impacted Moses, and immediately swings to face me, “How dare you! We are the ones who brought the people out of Egypt and have led them through this wilderness!”
Moses raises a hand and silences his brother. “Aaron,” he says, “Korach is right.”
Aaron deflates immediately and, sighing, moves to stand behind Moses, head bowed in a show of subservience.
I focus completely on Moses, allowing everyone else, those who stand with me and those who have stood against me, to fade away. I allow Aaron’s pinched face and tense shoulders to disappear from my sight. He is no longer a part of this exchange. I try to prepare myself to be disappointed again, but I can’t seem to help the small hope that starts to bloom in my chest.
Moses looks down at the staff that he holds in his hands. It is a symbol of his power. With it, he has brought plagues onto our oppressors and split tumultuous seas. It is the instrument through which Moses has channeled the power of our God. He stares at it for a moment before once again meeting my gaze.
“Korach, you are correct. We have led to the best of our abilities, but I cannot deny that we are lost in the wilderness. When the Eternal first spoke to me, I told Them that They should choose someone else to lead Their people. I didn’t know if I had the strength or the vision to do what must be done.” He sighs deeply, “You know, I haven’t thought about that moment in so long. I’ve spent so much time thinking about God’s certainty that I’ve forgotten my own doubt.”
Moses lifts his hands slowly, gently cradling the staff that he has carried every day since our God spoke to him through the fire. “Be well, Korach. Whoever is chosen to be the next leader of our people, I wish them strength, and I give my promise that I will follow them,” he looks quickly back at Aaron before adding, “that we will follow them.” Aaron makes a sound like he is clearing his throat, as if he is preparing to speak, but Moses cuts him off by raising the staff higher, stretching his arms to the sky.
He looks out at the people who have accompanied me as I issued my challenge, those who have been trying to improve our people for so long. And then he speaks, his voice booming, “My people, I am sorry that I have not heard your cries, that I have not seen your suffering. I am sorry for the pain that I have caused. I am sorry for the wrongs that I did not see and those that I saw but did not address. I pray that our next leaders will be filled with the wisdom that I have lacked and with all the strength that they will need. I pray that they will carry both God’s certainty and their own doubts in equal measure. I pray that they will bring us further than I have been able to. I pray that they will succeed where I have failed.”
He lowers his arms, and I raise my hands to accept the staff of leadership. It will not be mine to carry for long, but I will keep it safe until our people have decided who will lead us.
The moment that the staff leaves Moses’ hands, the glow that has been a part of him for as long as I have known him dims, and I can see that it is only a man who stands before me, nothing more and nothing less than a child of Eve. “Come, brother,” Moses says to Aaron, his voice no longer booming, “We will return to our tent and spend time with our families. Our voices are not needed at this gathering.”
I watch as Moses leads his brother away despite Aaron’s hushed and urgent whispers. I look at the staff he has left in my keeping, and I can feel the connection to God that thrums through it. No wonder Moses had forgotten that he once doubted that he should be the leader of our people. Holding the staff is like carrying lightning that has been captured in a jar. It would be easy to imagine that you alone are capable of holding such intense power, of bearing the burden of God’s connection. I can understand that temptation, but I’m not worried that I will succumb. We have fought too long for equality, too long for shared authority for me to fall prey to a selfish delusion.
I turn and face the people who have fought with me for freedom. I lift the staff high, just as Moses had done, and call out, my voice booming,
“We are free! We did not have miracles to shock our rulers into freeing us. No! We have won freedom for ourselves, and now we will lead our people to the Promised Land!”