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Korach: June 16, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.


Korach is every leader’s nightmare. A leader works hard on behalf of the community. Helping people find their way forward. Teaching and explaining the difficulties of the road. Helping to develop the values needed for everyone to have a life of accomplishments. Caring for those who get lost. Encouraging people who lose faith. Helping people see past the current difficulties so that the ultimate destination is not forgotten in the daily toil required for the trip. Leaders understand this and are always ready for whatever is needed to help us on our way. How could we ever function as a civilization were it not for the leaders who show us the way?


Along comes Korach and his crowd who seem to think that all of this is easy and that, given a chance, they could do a better job than Moses can. The Torah does not give us much information about what is bothering Korach, Datan and Abiram. They accuse Moshe of taking too much leadership on himself. They seem to think that anyone could do the job that Moshe and Aaron are doing and that they, the rebels, should be the ones in charge. After all, every Levite is holy so why can’t Korach, the Levite, be a priest? Why should Moshe lead the tribes when the tribe of Reuvan, where Datan and Abiram were born, was the first born of Jacob and should have the rights to a leadership role?


On the one hand, I understand the frustration of the Israelites. The people have been condemned to wander in the desert until the current generation dies. They are not getting closer to the Promised Land, they are actually moving away from their goal. Everyone is unhappy and frustrated. So, as usual, they take out their frustration on Moshe, their leader, and soon a full rebellion erupts. But on the other hand, the reason for their unhappiness and frustration is their own fault. They were the ones who cried all night when the spies told them they could not conquer the Promised Land even though there were plenty of people who believed that, not matter what the difficulties, they could surmount them. For their lack of faith they are wandering in the desert. This background has been forgotten, however, and Moses soon has to defend his leadership from the rebels. 


What is it that makes a good leader?  J. K. Rowling, in her Harry Potter books, makes the case that the best leaders are those who have leadership thrust upon them, rather than those who seek it out. This is true some of the time. Some of our best leaders, beginning with George Washington, found themselves suddenly leading our nation. But it is also true that we have had, in this country, many good leaders who went out seeking the nomination for President and worked hard to be elected, but, like Moses, they had an element of humility when seeking leadership. Humility in a leader is always a tricky value to attain. Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells an apocryphal story about a community who gave their Rabbi a medal for his outstanding humility. They took it away the next day when they caught him wearing it!


I am sure, that at one time or another, all of us thought that we could do a better job of leadership than whoever was in charge at the moment. We could make better decisions. We could answer critics better. We understand better how to get people to follow our lead. If only we were in charge, then things would be exponentially better. Clearly Korach arises from this model. He thinks he could be the perfect leader.


If we look at the leadership of Moses, we can easily point out his flaws. He has a wicked temper. He often thinks that nobody appreciates the work that he does. He often takes on all the work of leadership without appointing assistants to help him with some of the everyday issues that arise. He does appreciate the help but he still remains the most important contact that the people have with God. He has to make tough decisions and does not explain them very well to the people. And yet, Moses is humble; he admits when he is wrong, and he does not mind when people disagree with him with a fair complaint. He admits when he does not know all the answers and understands, most of the time, the complaints that people have. He tries to accommodate the needs of everyone.


Korach and his rebels are quick to judge Moshe. They belittle Moshe about his failures. Korach and his rebels gain a following by telling the people that they would do a better job of leadership. It is, however, their jealousy and pride that mark them as poor leadership material. They want all the privileges of leadership without showing any of the qualities that will make them good leaders. Without any understanding at all of the duties of leadership, they aspire only to the perks that come with leadership.  They have no understanding that the real director of the journey in the desert is God. In the end it is God who has chosen who will bring divine guidance to the people.


Leadership built on religious values is often a most difficult path. It is easy to get our values confused as we deal with the community that we lead. A wise leader knows that, in general, the faith and spirituality that guides us is not in some distant place or in some obscure text. The real test of faith can be found close at hand, by examining what is in our hearts and what is in our mind. The text of our Torah does not change, so what is important is for leadership to see their own reflection in the text of Torah. How do they measure up to the values that our scripture demands? When we understand fully how our leaders focus on the issues at hand, when we have a respect for our leadership and take the time to see how he or she makes the important decisions, then we can begin to see if we are up to the responsibilities of leadership. If our motivation is less than this, we are not yet ready to lead.


Leaders know that God is never far away. A leader knows that faith is not something we find but something that arises through the complex decisions we have to make. A leader knows that every decision will be judged so they try to only make decisions that will pass the test of time. A leader has to be humble enough to know that leadership is not about the leader; it is about where everyone is being led. Moshe may not live to see the Promised Land, but he will guide them along the way to do his part in bringing the people to their goal.


A leader cannot be afraid to look at him or her self in a mirror and to boldly assess what is found there. I know that once a year, the rabbi encourages everyone to look in the mirror at the end of the Jewish year, to see themselves as they really are so they can make important improvements in their lives. Leaders have to look in that mirror every day. What was done yesterday is no longer important. What the future holds is unknown. A leader understands that it is the decisions made today that are the most important. Will today’s decisions help move people forward or will it make them confused, hurt or frustrated? A leader can’t do what is always popular, so it is important that decisions are transparent and explained so everyone understands the reasons for what was decided.


If we aspire to a leadership that is not like Korach, we will need to look in that mirror of life. What do we see? Are we seeing ourselves judging other leaders and seeing how we can lead better, or do we see the hard choices that will have to be made, even if it is unpopular or hard? Think about this. We could be a very popular parent if we always fed our children ice cream. We would be the popular parent of some very overweight children. It is harder to get our children to eat a balanced diet, but we know, as good parents, that there are always important lessons we have to teach our children no matter how much they may dislike us today. Our decision today has to have long-term goals. Do we see the dangers and difficulties of leadership or do we only consider what we can do now to make everyone love us?


I don’t think it is too far-fetched to think that Korach thinks that leadership is about making people happy. He wants to show what he can do rather than what would be best for everyone. The worst leaders are those who think they are above the requirements of Torah. The best leaders are those who live a Torah centered life first and only then encourage others to follow their example. Korach wants to lead the people as a priest in the Mishkan, but only because of the status it will give him. He is not interested at all in how to bring others closer to God.


We live in a time when there is a constant discussion about leadership. We have become very tribal in our assessment of our leaders. We no longer have outside criteria about the qualities of a leader. As long as a person shares our political point of view, that is enough. We think that good leaders are found only among those who agree with our agenda. It is important that we consider not what a leader can do for us, but what needs to be done to move our community forward. What is important is making the tough decisions today to bring us to a better place tomorrow. That not only means sometimes ignoring a party endorsement, but it means also that we have to do the hard work of research and consideration, so we can choose the best leaders to take us into the future.


May God guide us to find right leaders for our community, the ones that will take us, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the future that can be ours. And may we recognize those leaders and support them in their work as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, June 16, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779