Why take a position in leadership? Would you take it for the power? Financial gain? Status or access to resources? What motivates one to take a position of power and be subject to the needs of a community – their whims, desires, and complaints?
Remember back in the book of Exodus – Moses never wanted this job! He never asked to take on the role of leading the Israelites out of slavery. He was chosen.
But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
God saw something in him, even when Moses was unable to see it in himself.
Now, in this week’s Torah portion, Korach and his band of two hundred and fifty community leaders challenge Moses’ leadership, and my question is: What is Korach’s motive? What was he seeking that he was willing to conspire and challenge Moses’ – and ultimately God’s – choice in leadership structure?
According to the rabbis, Korach, who is a member of the Levite tribe, doesn’t really want Moses’ role, he’s going after his brother Aaron’s spot of High Priest, Kohen Gadol.
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Unlike Moses who assumed power based on a calling, based on a willingness to serve and help others out of suffering and slavery despite his own shortcomings and fear, Korach’s hope is self-serving and purely with his own interest in mind. He even gathers a few members of the Tribe of Reuven, the first-born of Jacob, to conspire to legitimize his claim.
But Moses isn’t having any of it. When Korach approaches and asserts his position, Moses’ first response is one of humility and pause: “When Moses heard this, he fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4).
In fact, the Ba’al HaTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, an 18th century Chassidic master who founded Chabbad, remarks:
It appears that Moses could have responded to this immediately, so why did he first fall on his face? Even Moses our teacher, worried that this question was directed from above and Korach was merely its messenger. Therefore, he fell on his face first in order to understand, if truly he had any hint of arrogance. And after he checked thoroughly, he found that there was not a shred of pride, so he understood that this was not a messenger from above, rather Korach was an instigator, and thus he responded accordingly.
Again, two contrasting styles of leadership. One of humility, the other of ego.
But what about Korach’s claim: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” (Numbers 16:3).
Isn’t he right? Aren’t we all holy and God dwells among us? What’s wrong with what he’s saying? And does it really justify what God does later? (Spoiler alert: Korach and his band of rebel-rousers get swallowed alive in a miraculous, Hollywood-esque earthquake!)
Rabbi Simcha Bunim (Poland, 19th century) argues that Korach’s chief complaint is that he wanted to be Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who is able to enter the Holy of Holies. In other words, Korach wants the ultimate high. He wants to experience God face-to-face and perform the most elite ritual – the sacrifices on Yom Kippur that happen only once a year in the most sacred space of the Temple.
He isn’t going after Moses’ mantle of leadership; he’s harping about why Moses has the authority to appoint his brother as his right hand man. We are all holy, he argues. Shouldn’t all of us have the opportunity and the right to experience God in that way, that you nepotistically appointed to your brother Aaron!
But there’s more under the surface to Korach’s complaint – his approach to holiness is all wrong. Correct: holiness isn’t just the annual visit to the Holy of Holies for one man; it’s at every moment, at any place, with any individual. However, what Korach is arguing is that everyone has “arrived” and already achieved our goal of holiness, and nothing else is demanded of us.
Yes, we’re holy, but our actions must be holy. Our words must be holy, and we must bring holiness into the world.
Recently, I was asked to perform a wedding for a couple, and I didn’t want to do it. I already felt burdened by my load of leadership, and I didn’t want to add more stress to my life and take away from family time.
But then I met the couple and I was reminded of my calling to serve as a rabbi.
The one who officiates a wedding is called Mesader kedushin (One who sets the order of holiness). As such, I’m being allowed into the most sacred and vulnerable moments in people’s lives. My job is to see them at their best and worst and to create sacred moments.
What a high!!!
Unfortunately, even the most humble leaders falter under pressure.
Yes, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3), but after complaints about the lack of meat and the fiasco of the spies, Moses begins to forget his mission and the people he serves. He, too, loses sight of what holiness is.
He loses his cool and addresses his people as wicked:
“Move away from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins” (Numbers 16:26).
Moses had a temporary lapse and forgot who he was serving. He forgot about their flaws and bitterness of their burdens. But even though Moses was an imperfect leader who erred and lost his temper at times, he served a Higher purpose. Whereas Korach – he wanted holiness for his own sake and glory. That’s why I believe Korach and his rebellion were swallowed up and sent down to Sheol.
And maybe that hints at the type of leadership that has no place in this world.
The world we hope to build is rooted in service of God, not service of ego. We are all holy. And we need to remember to act accordingly.