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Leadership Is About Others

This week we read about Korah and his rebellion against Moses. It is a troubling story.

On the surface Korah’s complaints appear legitimate. He, and his followers, approach Moses and Aaron and say, “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)

This statement seems true. Judaism does not believe one person is holier than another. In fact, our greatest moments of holiness are achieved not when we stand alone but instead when we stand together. We require the voices of others to elevate our prayers. Moses does not hear Korah’s words as critiques but instead as threats.

He becomes distressed. Aaron becomes crestfallen. God becomes enraged. Korah and his followers are severely punished. The rebellion is mercilessly quashed. And so, the wrong, must be with Korah and his followers.

The tradition argues—at length—about Korah’s sins. What did he do to merit such punishment?

The rabbis draw inferences. They reason: “Every dispute that is for the sake of heaven, will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his followers.” (Pirke Avot 5)

When we argue with respect, when we debate so as to understand the truth standing in opposition to our own views, this is an argument for the sake of heaven, this is a controversy like that of the first century rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. When we argue, however, to destroy the opposition, when we debate so as to undermine others, these are controversies s like those of Korah and his followers.

In the rabbinic imagination, it was all about how Korah argued, and complained. In the rabbis’ estimation, it is very much about how we debate. Controversies can make the community better or they can destroy us.

Another tradition suggests Korah’s faults to be otherwise. Moses gives a hint at Korah’s sin when he says, “Do you then want the priesthood?” The tradition opines. Korah only wanted the prestige and honor of being a priest. He did not want the attendant duties and responsibilities.

Many people want honor. Few want the work that accompanies it.

Being a priest, or a politician, or a leader, or an actor, or a musician, or even a rabbi, is not so much about the prestige, but instead about the responsibilities.

History is filled with examples of rebellions, and countries led astray, by leaders who lust after the accolades, and pomp and circumstance of their positions, more than they pine after the duties to make the lives of others better.

This is what Moses teaches. This is what Korah forgets.

Leadership is supposed to be about others. It is supposed to be about lifting others up.