The parashah, Korach (Numbers 16: 1-18:32), centres on the rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram and On against Moses and Aaron: Korach, because, as a first cousin and fellow Levite, restricted to carrying the sacred objects, he was so near and yet so far from the Priesthood; the other three, because as members of the tribe of first-born R’uven, they resented being shunted aside in favour of the tribe of Levi. The Torah does not tell us any of this directly; but the names of the four rebels say everything; all you have to do, is go to parashat B’midbar and read there about the displacement of the firstborn by the Levites (Numbers 3:40-51), and about the duties assigned to the K’hat family of Korach (Num. 4:1-19).
The Haftarah, from the first book of Samuel, chapter 11:14 – 12:22, concerns the anointing of Saul as King. Until that point, there had only been one sovereign over the people: God. Samuel had resisted the people’s wish for a human monarch – and as we can see from the Haftarah, he took it very personally: Just as Moses protested to God that, ‘I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them’ (Numbers 16:15), Samuel exclaims: ‘Whose ox have I taken? Whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I taken a ransom and blinded my eyes with it? I will restore it to you’ (I Sam. 11:3). However, while Korach and the other rebels were very dissatisfied with the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the people in Samuel’s time clamored for a king, not because they were critical of Samuel, but simply because they wanted what other peoples had. As we read a few chapters earlier on: ‘We must have a king over us so that we may be like all the other nations: let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles’ (I Sam. 8:19-20).
Interestingly, God acceded to the request: ‘And the Eternal one said to Samuel, heed their demands and appoint a king for them’ (ibid., verse 21). Why? How different was the demand for a king from the incident of the molten calf? (Ki Tissa, Exodus 32-34). The Torah makes it clear that worshipping the molten calf was a sin; wasn’t there also a danger that the people would treat a king like a god? Samuel certainly thought so, and the Haftarah focuses on Samuel reminding them that they must serve the Eternal, and calling on God to prove his absolute power by sending thunder and rain. Of course, the problem of the institution of the monarchy as a potential rival to God remained – not only during biblical times, but right up to the modern period; and then absolute monarchs were soon replaced by other tyrants… Fortunately, democracy has become established in many parts of the world today, as the oppressed have struggled, and continue to struggle, for freedom. Why is it then that, just like those in Samuel’s time, some people still long for a powerful leader who will tell them what to do?