Parshat Korach: Selfless Leadership – for the Sake of the People
Rabbi Todd Berman is the Associate Director of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. He received his semikha from the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary and is also a graduate of Columbia University, Harvard Graduate School, Yeshivat Hamivtar and Yeshivat Har Etzion. Founder of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at Brandeis University, Rabbi Berman served as the rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years before returning to Israel and serving as a RaM and dormitory Rabbi at Midreshet Lindenbaum.
Leaders sometimes toss around the notion of biblical ethics or tradition to anchor personal predilections or preferences in the Torah. Yet if we take a close look at the qualities of leadership the Torah presents, we find models that seem too often absent.
Parashat Korach presents the first and most famous rebellion against Jewish leadership. Korach of the tribe of Levi, along with Datan and Aviram, criticizes the leadership of Moses and Aaron. They gather a band of two hundred and fifty others to challenge the present hierarchy. Discussion of their argument and the Divine response which leads to the death of Korach and his supporters is well known. But a simple, almost repeated story, caught my eye.
During the argument, Moses commands the rebels to prepare for a competition of incense offerings. They do, and in the middle of the story, God expresses His anger, and Moses and Aaron respond:
And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” But [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, ‘O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?’” (Numbers 16:20-22)
God readies to destroy those who challenge His chosen leaders and who want to replace the present system. Moses and Aaron almost accuse God of a lack of justice: “one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” They stand their ground, and seemingly, God retracts his earlier anger. One almost hears an echo of the accusation made centuries before by Abraham at Sodom:
Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? …Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23-25)
Almost channeling Abraham’s heroic demands, Moses and Aaron will not allow God to act unjustly. As fitting descendants of the great Jewish patriarch, chosen for his love of kindness and justice, Moses and Aaron risk themselves challenging the Divine.
This mini-story seems as if to repeat with an important addition. After the destruction of Korach and the rebels, the people fear that the Divine wrath weakens the nation:
The next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You two have brought death upon the LORD’s people!” But as the community gathered against them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the Tent of Meeting; the cloud had covered it, and the Presence of the LORD appeared. When Moses and Aaron reached the Tent of Meeting, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant.” They fell on their faces. (Numbers 17: 6-10)
Again, Moses and Aaron, like Abraham, beseech God and demand mercy. But in this attempt, they add a new step:
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from the LORD: the plague has begun!” Aaron took it, as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked. Those who died of the plague came to fourteen thousand and seven hundred, aside from those who died on account of Korach. Aaron then returned to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, since the plague was checked. (Numbers 17: 11-15)
In this case, Moses and Aaron not only pray to God and demand mercy but act immediately to stem the Divine punishment. Their actions could not spare everyone; however, most of the nation healed. Here, prayer and debate do not sufficiently satisfy the demands of the hour. They are ready to take action in order to counter the Divine punishment.
In all three stories, Abraham and Sodom, Moses and Aaron with Korach, and finally with the people, the three leaders demand justice from God through debate, prayer, or action. In all three cases, they could have turned away. The people sinned, and God punishes them. Sometimes the punishment is even unjust or at least overly severe. Yet leadership demands taking risks – not for oneself or one’s aggrandizement but the sake of the people.
These stories offer a counter to the actions of Korach and his cohort. Moses and Aaron’s ascension, by Divide decree, to leadership disturbs the rebels. Korach himself was a leader of the tribe of Levi, and Levi was designated as the tribe to serve God in the Mishkan. Yet, that privileged position could not satisfy Korach’s ego. Korach focuses on his own needs. Moshe and Aaron defend the people. The narcissism that leads Korach and others to rebel is precisely the weakness limiting their abilities and highlighting those of Moses and Aaron.
Authentic leadership needs to put the nation before self, others before personal gain. Abraham, Moses, and Aaron, indeed, represent the accurate Torah model of Jewish leadership ethics.
As an alumnus of Yeshivat HaMivtar and Ohr Torah Stone involved in teaching Torah, I frequently look back to the models of Torah leadership I had the privilege to learn from and hopefully emulate. My rabbanim bequeathed to me a Torah of both Hessed and Mishpat – loving kindness and pro-active justice. From Abraham through Moses and Aaron and all throughout the ages, Torah leadership demands sacrificing oneself for the good of Klal Yisrael. I want to thank Ohr Torah Stone for setting me on a path which hopefully enables me to successfully pass these eternal Torah values to my students as well.