One of the greatest dangers for any leader is believing that he or she is naturally endowed with authority, that a holding a title automatically means that the person in authority will receive respect and adulation. Instead, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky argue that an effective leader must recognize that authority is given in return for a person fulfilling a specific purpose, and it is the fulfilling of that purpose that leads to reader. They write:
“If you find yourself heroically stepping into the breach to restore order, it is important to remember that the authority gain is a product of social expectations. To believe it comes from you you is an illusion. Don’t let it get to your head. People grant you power because they expect you to provide them with a service. If you lose yourself in relishing the acclaim and power people give you, rather than on providing the services people will need to restore their adaptability, ultimately you jeopardize your own source of authority” (Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line, 168-169).
Well aware that many leaders develop a love affair with their own authority, Heifetz and Linsky urge us to see authority as a product of service, a lesson that we learn in Parashat Korah. While Korah’s critiques of Moses may appear reasonable on a first-reading, our rabbis will argue that Korah is someone who misunderstands the nature of authority, and that misunderstanding lies at the root of his heresy.
Upon challenging Moses and Aaron, Korah audaciously asks, “Why do you uplift yourselves over the congregation of Adonai?” (Bemidbar 16:3). Looking at the context of our parasha, many of our earlier commentaries argue that Korah’s critique is rooted in the fact that Moses and Aaron, two brothers, hold both the highest political and religious positions of the Israelites. Regarding this verse, Rashi states that “It is one thing for you [Moses] to have taken the kingship for yourself- but you shouldn’t have have assigned the priesthood to Aaron” (Rashi on 16:3), and Ibn Ezra states, “Making Aaron the High Priest and Moses, who taught him what to do, even higher than him [is the root of Korah’s critique]” (Ibn Ezra 16:3). In each case, our commentaries assume that Korah rebels because he’s angry that Moses’ family is holding all the levers of religious and political power.
However, later Hasidic commentaries note that Korah’s critiques cannot be taken at face value, because Korah himself misunderstands the nature of Moses’ authority. Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshischa argues that Korah’s critique that Moses is drunk with power absurd, for the Torah explicitly tells several times that Moses is humble and meek, and never sought the position he was ultimately given:
“In a dispute with righteous men, usually those who engross in such conflict attribute to these men traits which are the total opposite of their true character. The Torah specifically states that Moshe Rabbeinu “was very meek, above all the men that were on the face of the earth.” His opposers, wishing to find fault with him, centered on arrogance of all things, for which to attack their leader! We can see how great the power of corruption is when a dispute is not for the sake of Heaven. It distorts and blinds even the wisest of men, causing them to lose all logic and sense. What greater folly could there be than to accuse Moshe Rabbeinu of being arrogant!?!” (Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshischa, Itturei Torah on Bemidbar 16:3).
In this commentary, Korah’s rebellion is blasphemous because he attacks Moses for something that the Torah explicitly says that Moses is not. Rather than looking at the true roots of Moses’ authority, namely devotion to God, Korah tries to convince others that Moses has overstepped his authority.
Taking a different approach, Rabbi Meshullam Feivish of Zabriza writes in Yosher Divrei Emet that while no leader can avoid developing some degree of arrogance, Korah’s mistake assuming that only Moses was drunk with power, that Korah himself had not already fallen into the same trap. The Yosher Divrei Emet states that Korah, “could not believe that Moses did everything by the word of God and that he was in truth so humble and lowly,” and Korah “never imagined that that he might bear a sense of grandiosity.” In contrast, the Yosher Divrei Emet argues that Moses’s awareness of his blindspots was his greatest strenght as a leader, an incredibly important lesson for all of us as we think about what it means to show religious leadership. The commentary states:
“[Learn from Moses’s own reluctance to lead] not to compete for any mitzvah that has an aspect of authority in it. Flee from such a thing. If it is right for you, God will force the whole world to make that opportunity for leadership come your way. But weigh this matter with deep thought and a sense of pure justice, asking God’s help that no evil urge lead you to oppose His will” (Yosher Divrei Emet #30, 33-34).
No matter who we are, or what position is given to us in the Jewish Community, the challenge is for us to realize that authority and power are only for the purpose of serving God and advancing the Jewish people. Power in and of itself is the approach of Korah, the belief that what position you hold makes you inherently better than others. Therefore, we must teach our children what it means to be leaders, but be leaders for a divine purpose, devoted to fulfilling a particular mission, rather than achieving personal gain.
This will be the last Dvar Torah from Schechter for the year, as the site will go on hiatus for the summer. In just two years, Schechter has been visited over 22,000 times, and I hope that next year will provide an opportunity to expand the learning opportunities made available by this site. Until September, keep studying, keep learning, and have a wonderful summer.