When I was in college, I was in a Greek house, a co-ed fraternity. In some ways my experience was unusual (there aren’t many co-ed fraternities out there) and in other ways my experience was typical (rushing, pledging, and partying). Looking back, I find the most lasting lessons of this experience involve leadership. I had never before been part of a community that cooperates to plan events, maintain a building, and manage its membership. In my final year in the fraternity, I was elected to the office of president, and in this experience I learned one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about leadership: it is impossible to make everybody happy.
As a people-pleaser, the happiness and satisfaction of others is something I worry about; as a leader, I have to confront that making everybody happy isn’t at the top of my agenda. At the most basic level, for everyone to be happy in the same way, everyone needs to be in agreement – and we all know that it is virtually impossible to get a group of people, Jewish or not, to agree on anything! More importantly, I learned that being a leader involves considering many factors and making difficult decisions. When people in my community would come to me and complain about this or that, I often felt that if they broadened their view, looking at the whole picture beyond their personal concerns, they would understand things differently.
The story of Korah’s rebellion at the opening of our parashah brings me back to these first challenges I faced as a leader. Korah, a distinguished and disgruntled man in the Israelite community, gathers his closest and most powerful friends by his side and approaches Moses and Aaron with defiance: ‘You two have taken too much power,’ Korah claims, ‘raising yourselves above the rest of this community. All of us are holy – so why do you hold yourselves above us?’
In making this claim, Korah gives voice to a universal complaint about leaders: they are only leaders because they want power, that the role leaders take on in their community is self-seeking rather than selfless. It is an argument that has withstood the test of time – many people have said the same things about the leaders in our country, and in our communities, today! To Korah, and to those that make these arguments, I would respond with a classic Beit T’Shuvah teaching: It’s a Both/And.
Of course there is ego in leadership; there has to be. In order for it to be possible for a leader to stand in front of others and speak, to make tough decisions that impact a community, and to accept the responsibility of leadership in the first place, a leader needs to have a strong sense of self. But that’s only half of the story. Acting out of obligation to others and putting one’s own ego aside to take care of community needs are also essential characteristics of leaders. Leadership is a powerful act of service. When leaders accept responsibility for others and for their community, they must be ready to make their own needs their second priority. Of course leaders must care for themselves – otherwise, they could not care for others – but they must also ensure that the needs of their community are satisfied.
Moses responds to Korah’s claim with true humility: he recognizes his responsibility to handle the situation, and acts to fulfill it. He does not give in to Korah, and he does not fight against him. Instead, he “falls on his face” – he prays. In this difficult leadership situation, in the face of a rebellious person with supporters at his side, Moses strives to do the next right thing. He speaks with God and takes direction, explaining to Korah and his followers that God would make it clear who should lead the community and who should follow.
As I reflect on my leadership experience, I see my people-pleasing in a new light. When I act to make others happy, I place my ego and theirs at the top of the agenda, doing whatever it takes to feel good, and ignoring the true priorities at hand. I always must remember to pause, reflect, check in with my Higher Power, and strive to do the next right thing.
For all of us, as we find ourselves in leadership roles – whether we are leaders at Beit T’Shuvah, in a twelve-step fellowship, or in our own families – may we all be like Moses against Korah. May we put aside our needs to please others and our needs to wield power; instead, may we check in with our Higher Power, and may we strive to do the next right thing.
Rabbi Miriam Green