A creeping dynamic has been at play since the outset of the Book of Numbers, one which comes to the fore in the Torah portion of Korach (Num. 16-18): the question of authority, fame, and service. In order to fully appreciate the story, we first need to recount some essential elements of Numbers that we may not have fully apprehended as we read them.

We recall that at the outset of the Book of Numbers, God instructs Moses to appoint heads of the tribes to assist in the counting: “With you [and Aaron] will be one man for each tribe, each man the head of his ancestral house” (Num. 1:4). The Torah goes on to list the names of each of the men: “For the tribe of Reuben, Elitzur ben Shedeiur. For the tribe of Simeon, Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai.” And so on.

We find these characters again when they each bring gifts for the Tabernacle (ch. 7): “This was the offering of Nachshon ben Amminadav,” “This was the offering of Netanel ben Tzuar,” and so on. And they are listed again when the people grandly move from Mount Sinai on the way to the land of Canaan in ch. 10: “So they moved out for the first time according to the commandment of the LORD through Moses. The standard of the camp of the sons of Judah, according to their armies, set out first, with Nahshon the son of Amminadab, over its army, and Nethanel the son of Zuar, over the tribal army of the sons of Issachar; and Eliab the son of Helon over the tribal army of the sons of Zebulun.” And so on through all the tribes.

“These are they who were called of the congregation, the leaders of their fathers’ tribes; they were the heads of divisions of Israel” (Num. 1:16). The repeated reference to these leaders has thus far been peaceful: they seem to be not only supportive, but even woven into the fabric of Moses and Aaron’s leadership of the people. Notably, these leaders are not the spies of last week. But this week, when Korach mounts his rebellion, we find that the midrash links the tribal princes with the rebels:

“Although the names of the princes who sided with Korah and joined him in his dispute were not explicitly mentioned, they were nevertheless made known by a veiled reference: They were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, anshei shem, men of renown (Num. 16:2) and this recalls the text, These were the elect of the congregation, the princes of the tribes of their fathers (Num. 1:16). They were the ’men of renown’ whose names were mentioned in connection with the standards; as you read,  These are the names of the men that shall stand with you, etc. (Num. 1:5)” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:5; cf. 18:3).

We recall that Numbers opened with the instruction to Moses to count all the Israelites according to their ancestral homes, using “the number of their names” (Num. 1:2). I have written about this phrase elsewhere, and the significance of the Torah’s use of names rather than simply numbers, which seems to indicate that while the Israelites are to transform into a corporate entity capable of conquering the land of Israel, they are to do so in a way that still honors the individual integrity of each of the members of the nation. The use of the term “anshe shem,” men of renown, or men of names (Num. 16:2), to describe Korach’s rebels, brings the fore another aspect of the tension that underlies Bamidbar (Numbers) as a whole: the human desire to make a name for oneself on the one hand, with the need for selfless duty and service on the other. The leaders of the tribes have been listed at key moments in the story, thus far in keeping with the aspect of Bamidbar that emphasizes the unity of God’s word and the actions of the Israelites. But now we see the reverse side–which perhaps inevitably coexists with the positive aspects–which manifests in self-aggrandizement and the attempted destruction of those with even greater names, in this case Moses and Aaron.

The Midrash signals to us that this dynamic is universal. We recall a mysterious verse from early in the Book of Genesis: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterward–when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). Here the “men of renown” are anshe ha-shem, very similar to our anshe shem in Korach. “Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Divisiveness (machloket) is as challenging as the generation of the flood: just as the reference to anshe hashem in Genesis signals divisiveness, so too the reference to anshe shem in Numbers signals divisiveness” (Bereshit Rabba 26:7). Likewise this issue will present itself in the story of the Tower of Babel, where the people are determined to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).

In all these cases, it seems, we are dealing with a basic challenge of building society. We crave the recognition that comes from hearing others call our name. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” as Hillel famously put it. But at the same time, “When I am for myself, what am I?” How can we build communities and societies in which we can each fulfill the uniqueness of our potential, while doing so with humility and a spirit of service? This is no simple task, as the Torah shows us. It was a challenge for the Israelites in the desert, as it is for us today, and as it will likely be as long as people have names.

Shabbat shalom.