Korah’s Take on Leadership
Our parashah features a serious and dangerous assault on Moshe’s leadership of the Jewish people. In the midst of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, a Levite named Korah rallies a group of two hundred and fifty rebels, who accuse Moshe and Aaron of assuming too much power for themselves: “All the community is holy. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (16:3). Korah’s explicit demand is that leadership be distributed more equally, but Moshe’s response intimates that Korah and his followers have an ulterior motive. A close examination of the wilderness rebellion in our parashah points to a fundamental difference between Korah and Moshe’s models of leadership: One devalues the common good for selfish ends, thereby pandering to our basic instincts; the other elevates the common good to a central place in society, thereby upholding our aspirations.
Although Korah presents himself as a populist, Moshe understands that Korah and his followers are really intent on their own self-aggrandizement. Moshe realizes that the rebels were resentful that Aaron and his sons—a different branch of the Levite family—were chosen as priests instead of them. As Moshe tells the men who rose up against him and Aaron, “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle…Do you seek the priesthood too?” (16:9-10). In the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 18:4) Korah incites his followers to complain that, “Moshe is a king, Aaron and his brothers are high priests, their sons are deputy priests, the tithes go to the priests, twenty-four priestly gifts go to the priests.” They are angry at Moshe and Aaron for hoarding all the roles and the riches and wish to assume these leadership positions themselves.
Another suggestion that Korah is in it for his own glory can be found in the opening words of the parashah, “Korah took” (16:1). The verb “took” never receives any direct object, leaving us to wonder what it is that Korah takes. But perhaps that is the point. Korah’s leadership is all about taking. He wants power and glory for himself. In this sense, his model of leadership could not be more antithetical to that of Moshe.
Moshe, unlike Korah, never wished to take the role of leader upon himself. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” he asks God, eager for God to choose anyone else in his stead (3:11). Later, following the incident with the golden calf, God offers to destroy the Jewish people and make Moshe into a great nation (32:10), but Moshe will have none of it. He knows that he is nothing if not for the Jewish people; his raison d’etre, at this point in his life, is to serve the people and bring them closer to God. If God will not forgive the people, Moshe cries, then “erase me from the book which You have written” (32:32). Moshe, the humblest man on earth (Number 12:3), recognizes that a leader is only a leader when leading his people; his leadership is not about himself, but about the people he leads.
Two of Korah’s fellow rebels, Datan and Aviram, have particular difficulty understanding Moshe’s attitude toward leadership. The Talmud (Nedarim 64b) identifies these two men as the two Israelite slaves whom Moshe saw fighting when he went out among his kinsmen in Egypt. “Why do you strike your fellow” (2:13) Moshe asked one of them, and he replied, “Who made you chief and ruler over us?” (2:14). As the rejoinder suggests, Datan and Aviram, like Korah, assume that Moshe is just trying to take power for himself. They do not realize that Moshe is motivated not by power but by justice; not by might but by right. They assume that his leadership is about his own authority and glory, but that is only because this is their own model of leadership, and they cannot imagine any other.
The Talmud teaches a valuable lesson on leadership in a story intricate Horayot (10a) about Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the Jewish people in the land of Israel at the turn of the first century, who once decided to appoint two young scholars as to the head of the academy. He summoned the scholars to inaugurate them in their new positions, but they did not come, presumably because they were reluctant to accept the honor. He sent another message, this time rebuking them: “Do you imagine that I am granting you an authority? I am granting you servitude!” Korahseeks honor and authority. He is a reminder that those very leaders who masquerade as populists are often so focused on themselves that they have no space to consider the good of the people they purport to want to lead. Only a truly humble leader can dedicate his or her energies to doing what is best for others.
Perhaps it is fitting that Moshe dies high up on the summit of Pisgah, whereas Korah’s band is swallowed into the earth. As our parashah reminds us, great leaders like Moshe do not direct attention to themselves but focus our gaze upwards — on values and ideals that lie far above the petty concerns of Korah and his followers.