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On populism

If you ask yourselves, what is the defining “ism” of our age, it may well not be capitalism and thank God it is not Corbynism. And yet, the latter gives us a whiff of our times: my vote would be for populism as our distinctive political fashion.

Our Torah portion this week – featuring the Korach rebellion – shows us that, as Kohelet once said, “there is nothing new under the sun”, and indeed populism goes back even to biblical times. The challenge of Korach to the leadership of Moses may at first glance lean towards the democratic, but a deeper look – through the lens of the midrash – shows the rabbinic view at least that Korach exemplified not democracy but demagoguery.

We are told at the beginning of the portion that Korach, himself a Levi, took up against his cousin Moses, leading an uprising of 250 Israelite chieftains. His battle cry: “Moses, you have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is among them. Why then do you raise yourself above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16, verse 3) In other words, what makes you so special?

It is not so clear what has raised Korach’s ire and – in that delightful phrase - got on his goat. But the rabbis in the Midrash are only too happy to fill in the missing details. They depict Korach as gathering the entire congregation and telling them stories:

"There was once a widow in my neighbourhood who had two little girls, orphans.

She owned a modest field. She began to plough the field;

Moses told her 'Do not plough with an ox and an ass together' (Deuteronomy 22:10).

She began to sow the field.

Moses said 'Do not sow the field with mixtures of seeds (Leviticus 19:19).

She began to harvest the crop; he said, 'leave the gleanings, and the edge of your field for the poor'.

She gathered the harvest; he said "Give the tithes to the Priest and the Levite'.

She gave it all to him.

She sold her field and bought two sheep in order to clothe her children from their fleece and to gain profit from their offspring and milk. They gave birth;

Aaron came and demanded the firstborns, as it states: 'Every firstborn.... you must sanctify to God.'(Deuteronomy 15:19)

She gave him the lambs.

Then she came to shear the sheep. Aaron came, 'Give me the first of the fleece,' he said. "God gave it to me, as it states, "The first of the fleece give to him."(Deuteronomy 18:14)

She stood there crying with her two daughters. That is what they did to this desperate woman. This is what they do and they pin it all on the word of God."

This is a phenomenal midrash, a rabbinic story for our times. It is the rallying cry against the establishment. The victims are clear, a single mother and her poor, hard-working family, who at every step of the way are blocked in earning an honest penny by the biblical taxman, the Levites, eating her out of house and home with new laws and taxes. It is an expert political attack on Moses, accusing him and his brother Aaron of abusing the Torah for personal gain. And it is an acutely populist narrative, rallying the ordinary Israelite against the elite who are running their camp.

As a Brit, for me this could be left or right, Korach could be either Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage. And around the world there are increasing numbers of successful political leaders who seem unafraid to lie their way into the various presidencies and prime ministerial positions in the world. Moses is at pains to say (verse 15) that he has neither defrauded nor wronged any of them. And we as followers of the Mosaic religion have no reason to believe that Moses was anything other than a humble, long-suffering servant of God, doing as he was commanded, and getting the Israelites from A to B, through the desert from Egypt to the promised land of Israel.

The story ends with a duel: firepans at dawn. As a contest to separate the sheep from the goats it is an apt one, because more than anything it demonstrates how while we are all holy, some are more holy than others. That is to say that God will accept sacrifices from some and not from others. This we know tragically from the beginning of Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel, where the lack of divine appreciation for the former’s sacrifice led to him jealously killing his brother. Tragedy also struck Nadav and Abihu, two of Moses’ nephews, who were killed for offering strange fire, freestyle sacrifices that were not commanded. As this story concludes, with the earth swallowing up Korach and his people, his band of followers burned as they attempted to offer their incense, again we are shown how not everyone is able to offer a sacrifice, and even a democracy needs leadership and an establishment.

All that being said, of course we pick and choose our causes. Some challenges to the establishment call to us more than others, be it those marching in Hong Kong, or the demonstrations of Extinction Rebellion and climate change activists. In Israel this week the Ethiopian community have been protesting across the country after one of their youths were shot dead by an off-duty policeman. But the targeting of the elite as the enemy by appealing to the ordinary citizen – this is rabble-rousing populism – and in the Korach episode we can see its methods and dangers only too clearly.

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