Parshat Korach

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A young woman is going door to door collecting information for a census. As she reaches the front door of one particular house she hesitates before knocking. Emanating from the house are strange noises, shouts and screams and the sounds of smashing glass.

Eventually she plucks up the courage and knocks on the door. The noises stop and a dishevelled looking man opens the door, his glasses askew, his shirt ripped and in general looking a little the worse for wear. “I’m sorry to disturb,” she says to him, “I am here for the census. Are you the master of the house?”

“You know what,” he replies. “Can you come back in five minutes? We are just deciding that very question!”

In this week’s Torah reading we see play-by-play a power struggle for leadership of the Jewish people. G-d has appointed Moshe as the leader, and Aaron his brother as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), yet their first cousin Korach is unhappy. He feels he has been overlooked for a well-deserved position at the top. Korach approaches Moses with his complaint, “Rav lachem – You’ve taken too much! … u’madua titnaseu al kehal Hashem … Why have you promoted yourselves to be above the congregation of Hashem?”

Supporting Korach are Datan and Aviram, On ben Peles and two hundred and fifty others. Moses of course does his best to appease them and calm things down, but in the end it is G-d who steps in to quash the rebellion and punish Korach and his fellow rebels. The ground underfoot splits open and Korach, Datan and Aviram and their families are swallowed alive into the darkness below. The two hundred and fifty others are consumed by fire and On ben Peles got lucky, his wife managed to keep her husband home and out of trouble. Once they see this Divine intervention the people are under no illusion as to who G-d appointed to lead. The debate is over and Moses is the master of the house.

Moses in general is seen as the paradigm of good Jewish leadership, with two traits in particular standing out, causing him to be remembered as the most revered leader in Jewish history.

The first was his care of the individual – however seemingly unimportant they might be, or however much they may have angered G-d – Moses was there to pray for them and to protect them. Every single individual, great or small, received his heartfelt love and care.

There is a famous anecdote in the Midrash about Moses and how as a shepherd he had cared for one young lamb which had strayed while seeking water. Moses patiently followed the lamb, let it drink and then lovingly carried it back to the flock. Says the Midrash, when the Al-mighty saw how tenderly Moses dealt with the creatures in his care He picked him to lead His people. This is truly how Moses acted in his dealings with every individual – each was equally important, and Moses was always ready to defend his flock, even those who had strayed.

The second was his desire to encourage leadership in others, to empower others to fulfil their true potential, without jealousy or fear of competition. We see this very clearly when G-d appoints seventy elders to “share” Moses’ vision and prophecy. Joshua was shocked at some of the prophecy he heard from them (foretelling Moses’ death and transfer of leadership) and relayed it to Moses in the hope that Moses would stop them. Moses simply responded “u’mi yitein kol am Hashem nevi’im – if only all of G-d’s people could be prophets!” Moses had no complex about needing to be in charge, at the top of the pyramid – he wanted to create leaders, to empower others and to share leadership.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, world respected rabbi and leader, has written about what motivated him to leave his chosen career path (law) and become a rabbi for Anglo Jewry … it was an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”tl, whose 18th yahrtzeit is today, the 3rd of Tammuz.

He writes: “When I was privileged for the first occasion to meet the Rebbe, to walk into his presence, to share a conversation with him, I discovered something quite stunning. I had met dozens, dozens of other leaders, and from every other leader I had asked questions and I had received answers. The Rebbe was the only one who asked me questions, beginning with: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?” At that interview I understood that the Rebbe was not interested in creating followers. He was interested in creating leaders…”

The sign of a great leader is that he or she strives to motivate others, not to follow, but to lead.

These two traits of Moses are important for all of us to emulate; one – to care deeply for every single individual and two – to motivate and inspire those around us to fulfill their true potential, so that they in turn inspire others.  The ripple effect can last for generations. Shabbbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.
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