Korach. Not a Single Donkey!
Korach assails the leadership of Moses and Aharon with the accusation: “rav lachem - too much for you!” To much what? Too much power? Too much honor? In one understanding, which is inferred but not explicit, Moses is accused of taking “too much” wealth for himself, libeled for financial violation.
How do we know Korach implicated Moses with the crime of financial indiscretion? Because Moses responds to the personal insult:
Moses was deeply upset. He said to the Lord, “Pay no regard to their appeals.
I have taken no one’s donkey, nor have I harmed any of them.” (16:15)
Although he has been condemned for leadership failure and attacked for the nepotism of appointing his brother, it is the accusations of corruption and fraud, personal moral failings, that infuriate and upset Moses more than any other. He professes his absolute innocence and his high standard, rare among national leaders, of taking nothing from the nation. Here as expressed by Ramban:
He said: How have I acted in an imperious manner? I never took even a donkey for my personal use, as is the norm among kings and governors, nor have I harmed any of them, placing them in my service or in my chariotry, as would be fitting for a king
This issue of leadership corruption is clearly an important and central theme because it is the link between the parsha and the Haftara. The Haftara depicts the coronation of Israel’s first king, Saul. The prophet Samuel, whose own sons, in their judicial role, had succumbed to bribery, stands before the nation as he hands the leadership to Saul. He feels a need to emphasize his personal integrity in monetary matters:
I have been your leader from my youth to this day. Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey 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.” They responded, “You have not defrauded us, and you have not robbed us, and you have taken nothing from anyone.” (I Samuel 12:2-4)
More then any other legacy, Samuel wants people to remember his honesty, and that he never exploited the public.
The stories of Moses and Korach, and the Samuel-Saul episode have more in common than meets the eye. Certainly both Moses and Samuel profess their integrity; but what is the source of that integrity?
Korach criticises Moses leadership: “… you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising” (16:28). Moses does not benefit from his leadership post. Why? Of course a person may draw a good salary for a position of national administration. The issue at hand is that he sees himself as performing God’s work, holy work. As such, he is not to profit from it.
Samuel is in a similar position. Samuel was called upon by God to lead the nation. He performs that task loyally. His proclamation of his personal honesty, his lack of corruption is a product of the attitude and mindset in which he functions. If this is God’s work, then Samuel doesn’t get fringe benefits; “Testify against me, in the presence of the Lord.”
Why did Korach accuse Moses of taking personal gifts?
Is this something that leaders or prone to do?
Why is it so important for leaders to withhold from taking gifts (are all gifts bribes?) and exchanging favors?
But of course, people in government live in beautiful homes, need to wear fancy clothes, drive in limousines, and what have you. What is legitimate and what is illegitimate when it comes to gift-taking and the material trappings of national leadership?
How should governments ensure that leaders achieve clean government?
In an interesting twist, the Rabbis suggest that Korach was the one who was interested in wealth, not Moses. See 16:32 which mentions Korach's assets or possessions - the seem worthy of mentioning. Possibly he was quite wealthy. The Talmud thinks he was:
Rabbi Ḥama bar Ḥanina said: Joseph hid three treasures in Egypt. One of them was revealed to Korah...
“Riches kept by his owner to his hurt” (Ecclesiastes 5:12). Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: This is the wealth of Korah, which caused him to grow arrogant and lead to his destruction. As it is stated: “And what He did to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, son of Reuben; how the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and their tents, and all the possessions at their feet” (Deuteronomy 11:6). Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to a person’s money that stands him upon his own two feet.
Rabbi Levi said: The keys of Korach’s treasure-house were a load for three hundred white mules. Pesachim 119b)
"Korach was the treasurer of Pharaoh’s palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasuries."(BeMidbar Rabba 18:15)
These Midrashic passages are suggesting that it was Korach who was wealthy, and that possible Korach gained his wealth inappropriately.
Why then would someone with that financial track-record accuse Moses of financial offenses?