D’var Torah: On Korach and the Nature of Leadership

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 2 July 2016

One of the most wonderful aspects of our tradition is that it is poly-vocal; it encompasses and contains multiple voices side by side; multiple ways of reading the text to find insight and meaning.

There are very few questions about the text for which the rabbis came up with only one answer, because there were multiple rabbis, with multiple viewpoints. And rather than irritably reaching for a ‘correct’ answer, placing them in conflict with one another, those answers were allowed to exist, together.  Yes, they were sometimes in tension, sometimes in complete contradiction of one another; but they still existed side by side.

This was certainly true of the main question that comes out of today’s Torah portion, in which Korach and his band challenge Moses’ authority.

The question for many of the rabbis and commentators was what Korach really does wrong. At first reading, nothing that he says seems unreasonable.  He merely challenges leadership and stands up for equality among the people.

It can surely not (can it?) be the position of Torah that authority can never be challenged? Or that we are not equals in the eyes of God? For the rabbis, in particular, who embraced poly-vocality, who enjoyed multiple voices in creative tension, the sin of Korach could not have been that he raised his voice.

Yet clearly there was something fundamentally not OK here, because Korach and his followers were to be quite massively punished. And so the rabbis set their creativity loose, and with their multiple minds and voices came multiple answers.

This is one of those places where the rabbinic imagination took them outside of themselves, outside of the Beit Midrash, outside of their ritual lives. It took them into the world of leadership, of politics.  They looked at their own structures and that of the world around them, and asked what Torah was saying about that.  And the answer that they came up with could have been written for us today.

So what did Korach do wrong?

It was not that he challenged leadership, not that he raised his voice. It was that he fundamentally misunderstood what leadership is.  He saw it in terms of personal status.  When he says to Moses “Why do you raise yourself above God’s congregation”, he reveals his view of leadership as being about the personal benefit of becoming a ruler.

This is the dominant voice in midrashic literature about Korach’s sin. It was the certainly the understanding that the 11th Century French commentator Rashi takes.  Basing his explanation on a midrashic account, he asks why Korach – who clearly wasn’t an idiot – would have indulged in such an idiotic course of action.  “His ambition led him astray,” Rashi explains, “He saw a great dynasty descending from him”

This was a coup. A power play for personal benefit, initiated not by the people but by the aristocracy. Korach was the great-grandson of Levi, and came with “two hundred and fifty chieftains of the community, chosen in the Assembly, men of renown”.  People who already had power and status.  And wanted more.

There is, our tradition suggests, something sadly inevitable about this personal appeal of power. In this morning’s haftarah we read Samuel’s warning to the people about what the king they wish for will really be like.  He will take your sons, take your daughters, seize your fields, put your slaves to work for him.

But just because this is true, doesn’t mean it is how leadership ought to be. Korach’s punishment is our warning.

The Midrash Tanchuma provides a wonderful extrapolation of the dialogue between Moses and Korach. “We have one God and one high priest”, Moses explains.  “I know you would all like to be that high priest, and so would I”, but – and I paraphrase a little here – “tough”.  Wanting status and power doesn’t make us the best suited for it; craving leadership roles doesn’t mean we get them.  This is not what real leadership is.

Rather, leadership is about service. Moses is described as Eved Adonai – the servant of God.  In a phrase that will resonate with anyone who has ever been a Chairman of a Synagogue, Rabban Gamliel in the Talmud is described as saying to two sages he is appointing to office: “Does it seem that I am offering you leadership? I am offering you service”.

The very model of rabbinic Judaism is one of multiple voices in tension and disagreement. Fundamental to our religious life is the message that challenging one another is good, disagreeing is good.  That it is beneficial – but only when done for the sake of heaven.  What the Mishnah calls a machloket l’shem shamayim.  When done for the sake of personal status, it is not good.

And thus the rabbis speak to us. We live in an unprecedented period of turmoil in leadership with politicians who appear to be motivated more by personal status than by the needs of our country either in power or lurking in the wings.  Where voices are raised not for the sake of heaven – or the sake of country – but seemingly for personal gain.  The example of Korach is that this is not what leadership is. While we can’t hope that all our leaders will be worthy like Moses, or that the unworthy among them will be swallowed up by the earth, the fate of Korach tells us, we should be wary of them nonetheless.