Korach's revolt and the principles of Jewish leadership

June 22, 2014


Back in the 1960’s, during the worst times of our nation’s urban crisis, the militants would predict “a long hot summer.”

In today’s portion (at
Numbers 16) Moses experiences his “long, hot summer”——-the violent, deadly revolt of Korach, Dathan, Abiram and the 250 chieftains.”

It is Moses’ gravest political failure.

Throughout the wandering in the desert, Moses encounters escalating objections to the style of his leadership.  I would suggest that these problems occurred because Moses fell short of his high standard of humility.

First, there was the mild rebuke by his father-in-law, Jethro.  Jethro saw Moses spend the entire day as the only judge over Israel.

Jethro proposed that Moses set up a hierarchy of courts.

Rabbi Judah of Akko suggests that Jethro sensed that Moses was losing his humility, becoming a pompous leader, who believed that only he, Moses, could solve the people’s problems.

Later, Aaron and Miriam confront Moses in the matter of the Cushite woman.

Jacob Ben Isaac Ashkenazi, author of the Tzeena u-Reenah, suggests that by marrying a foreign woman, Moses showed that he considered himself superior to his own people.  Additionally, Miriam and Aaron may have overheard Moses telling his wife that he was too busy with his important work to have time for her.

Finally, today, there is revolt.

Rabbi Harvey Fields in “
A Torah Commentary for Our Times" suggests that Korach and the rebels question the authority of Moses and Aaron to make communal decisions.  Who will decide what is right for the community?   Who will define the law and practice of society? 

Abraham ibn Ezra argued that many people thought Moses acted out of self-interest by assigning duties to the Levites which appear to benefit his own clan. 

Notwithstanding his political problems, Moses remains the model for Jewish leadership.

Rather than arrogance and hubris, Moses demonstrates humility.  Confronted by the accusations of Korach, Moses fell on his face twice, once before Korach and later before God, when God threatened to annihilate the Israelites.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis, a professor at Spertus College in Chicago, contrasts the Jewish classical view of leadership with secular political models.

For both theological and historical reasons, Judaism has always distrusted human leaders.  Jewish sources recognize the relationship between high office and the abuse of power.  Strict limits were placed on those who held positions of authority, from kings and judges to rabbis and philanthropists.

To prevent leadership abuses, Judaism insists on power sharing.  Jewish communities have been governed by a three part system in which religious, scholarly, and political leaders share responsibility for the welfare of the people. 

Individuals claiming to have all the answers, who insist on aggregating power, are viewed with suspicion and disdain. 

In secular politics, aspiring leaders emphasize their strength and toughness.  They exhibit  a top-down, command-and-control style.  Self-assurance and single-minded determination and bravado are associated with leadership

Jewish sources emphasize humility.  One must recognize his or her limitations regardless of the position.  Only God has absolute authority.  Human leaders, can never be above the law.
Humility is not a sign of weak leadership.  The Torah and later Jewish sources insist that the most effective of all leaders—-Moses—-was, at the same time the most humble. 

For Judaism, effective leadership is not about position; it is about behavior and action.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writes that in a social order in which everyone has equal dignity in the eyes of heaven, a leader does not stand above the people.  He serves the people and he serves God.   Rabbi Sacks refers to this style as “servant leadership.”

How would our world be different, if the Classical Jewish view of leadership were followed universally?