Korach – Monkeys in the Crowd
The model for all subsequent demagogues in history, Korach told the people that his grievance was really their grievance, that he was standing up not for himself but for them. And he used snideness as a tool to ingratiate himself with his audience.
As Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma on the words “And Korah assembled the entire congregation” (Bamidbar 16:19), elaborates:
[Korach assembled them] with words of mockery. All that night, he went to the tribes and enticed them [saying,] “Do you think I care only for myself? I care for all of you. These [people] come and take all the high positions: the kingship for himself and the kehunah for his brother,” until they were all enticed.
“The entire congregation,” Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, the Mei Marom, points out, certainly did not succumb to the blandishments and deceptions of Korach. Most of the crowd surely perceived, at least logically, the essential self-centeredness of the rally speaker, and recognized the cynicism of his characterization of the Mitzrayim from which they fled as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (16:13).
Which, Rav Charlop explains, is why, when Moshe and Aharon pleaded with Hashem to not destroy the nation (16:22), they invoked Hashem’s knowledge of “the thoughts of every man” – the fact that there were true followers of Korach but also others who may have attended his rally and enjoyed his mockery but knew in their hearts that the populist inciter was evil (see Rashi).
Yet, in the moment of the rally itself, they nevertheless “were all enticed” by the agitator’s words. Why?
Explains the Mei Marom, because “it is one of human beings’ weaknesses” that they are pulled to conform to the behavior of those around them, to “act like monkeys” in imitation of the crowd. The Rambam (Hilchos Deios 6:1) calls such conformity part of “the way humans are formed.”
And so the warning here, as timely today as ever, is to beware not only of dangerous demagogues but also of falling prey to the pull of others’ embrace of them.
© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran
My most recent Ami Magazine column, “Petulant Professor for President?”, can be read here.
And an essay I wrote about the Biden administration’s plan to fight antisemitism, and the negative reaction to it in some corners, appeared last week at Religion News Service. It can be read here.