Parshat Korach: The Torah’s Expectations of its Leaders

And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon and they said to them: You have enough! For all of the nation – every member – are sacred and Hashem is among them. Why have you lifted yourselves above the congregation of Hashem? (Sefer BeMidbar 16:3)

1. Korach’s true objective
Parshat Korach describes a rebellion initiated and led by Korach against Moshe. The Torah provides conflicting indications as to the issue that was the subject of the dispute. In the above passage Korach protests that every member of the nation is sacred. Therefore, it is not appropriate for Moshe to assume the role of leader. Apparently, Korach was proposing some form of egalitarian, collective leadership in which every member of the nation would participate.

Moshe responds to Korach with a rebuke. However, he does not address Korach’s criticism. Instead, he rebukes Korach for pursuing power and authority. He says that, as a member of the Tribe of Leyve, Korach has been provided with a special sanctity and a degree of prestige. Korach should be satisfied with this appointment and not seek further honor and prestige. It is apparent from Moshe’s rebuke, that he suspected Korach’s democratic pronouncements were designed to enlist the support of the nation. He was hiding his true desire within a message he believed would resonate with the people and secure their sympathy.

Rashi quotes our Sages who explain that Moshe correctly interpreted Korach’s motives. Korach observed that Moshe had assumed the position of ruler and Aharon had been appointed by Moshe as Kohen Gadol – High Priest. He expected – based upon his place within the lineage of his family – to be appointed as its leader. Instead, Moshe selected Eli’tzafan for this post. This infuriated Korach and resulted in Korach developing and launching a conspiracy whose aim was to unseat Moshe.[1]

With the assistance of Rashi’s comments a clear image emerges of Korach’s true objectives and character. Korach combined two qualities. First, he was ambitious and eager to achieve authority, power, and honor. In other words, he wished to dominate others and be glorified. Second, he was an astute, shrewd but cynical student of human nature. He understood the human desire to be free from the demands of authority and the appeal of an egalitarian political system. He used his understanding of human nature to further his own personal ends.

2. Modern parallels to Korach’s rebellion
Korach’s strategy has many modern parallels. One example is the strategy employed by Lenin and the communist leadership to overthrow the Tzar and seize power. Lenin preached an extreme egalitarian approach to government and economics. He promised that political and economic power and influence would lie with the people. He enlisted the population in his campaign to overthrow a despotic dictator. However, when victorious, Lenin introduced his own version of dictatorship. Although he described it as the dictatorship of the proletariat, it was not markedly different from the dictatorship of the Romanov aristocracy which it replaced. Countless other revolutions have followed the same path. These include the overthrow of the Shah in order to replace him with Iran’s current theocracy, and the overthrow of Rhodesia’s minority white leadership to be replaced by Robert Mugabe’s ruthless dictatorship of Zimbabwe. Korach and these other rulers shared the realization that the fundamental desire for freedom can be manipulated by the unscrupulous leader in order to further his own end and even to ascend to absolute power over his followers.

Raban Gamliel the son of Ribbi Yehudah the Prince says, “…. All that toil on behalf of the community should toil for them for the sake of heaven. Then, the merit of their fathers will support them and their righteousness will stand for eternity.” (Tractate Avot 2:2)

3. Two archetypes of leadership
In the above mishne Raban Gamliel extols the virtue of serving one’s community. However, he stipulates that one’s efforts on behalf of the community must be for the sake of heaven. Raban Gamliel explains that if a person serves the community for the sake of heaven, then the “merits of their fathers” will sustain these efforts and contribute to their success.

The exact meaning of Raban Gamliel’s message is not clear. Whose fathers’ merits will sustain the community worker and leader? Is it possible to understand how these merits will sustain the worker’s efforts?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Bertinoro offers a rather simple and straightforward explanation of Raban Gamliel’s comments. He explains that the “fathers” to whom Raban Gamliel refers are the righteous individuals of previous generations. Based on this interpretation, he explains Raban Gamliel’s message.

There are two archetypes of community leaders. One type of community leader is primarily focused on their own self-promotion. The efforts and accomplishments of such leaders have no essential connection to one another. Each leader’s main objective is self- glorification. If one continues his predecessor’s work this is because he views this strategy as an expedient for securing his own recognition. However, on a more fundamental level each worked solely for the purpose of securing his own legacy. Continuity of leadership only occurs on a fundamental level among the second type of leaders. These are leaders who share a single great purpose and end.
This is Raban Gamliel’s message. A leader who works for the sake of heaven – in order to advance the community’s spiritual life – continues the work of countless generations of righteous ancestors. This leader is linked with a past extending into remote history. He is furthering a mission and vision that was shared by those who preceded him and will be continued by those who will follow.[2]

4. Leadership built upon the merit of previous generations
Because they labored for the sake of heaven, the true leaders of previous generations accrued merit. Raban Gamliel asserts that one of the rewards for their merit is that their efforts will not be fruitless and their zeal for their mission will not be in vain. Other leaders will replace them and continue their work. These new leaders – if authentic in their motives – will be sustained by Hashem. This is a reward to the generations of devoted leaders whose mission the new leader continues.

5. A fundamental difference between serving the community and other mitzvot
Raban Gamliel’s exhortation seems to contradict another dictum of the Sages. The Sages assert that, of course, it is best to perform commandments for the proper reason. However, even when the commandment is executed for personal reasons, it has value. By habituating oneself in the performance of the commandment one will hopefully elevate oneself to performing the commandment for its proper purpose.[3] It seems that Raban Gamliel does not apply this reasoning to leadership. A leader should lead and toil on behalf of the community only for the sake of heaven. Raban Gamliel does not seem to believe that even a self-centered leader who toils for the community in order to secure acknowledgment and recognition is acceptable because with time and experience he may evolve into a more ideal leader.

Once he (Avraham) recognized and knew he began to respond to the people of Ur Kasdim and to debate them. He said that you do not travel of the road of truth. He broke the idols and began to make known to the nation that it is only appropriate to serve the Lord of the universe. To Him it is appropriate to prostrate oneself, offer sacrifices and libations so that all future generations will recognize him. (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 1:3)

6. What commandment does the leader fulfill through his efforts?
One possible explanation for Raban Gamliel’s exclusion of leaders and community workers from the principle of the Sages is suggested by the above comments of Maimonides. There is no specific mitzvah in the Torah that commands a person to work on behalf of the community or assume the role of a leader. However in the above excerpt from Maimonides’ biographical sketch of Avraham, he describes Avraham’s emergence as a leader and teacher of humanity. This raises an interesting issue. What compelled Avraham to assume this role? Why was Avraham determined to teach the truth to others and reform humanity from its idolatrous practices? If Avraham’s motivations can be defined, then perhaps we can identify the mitzvah that latter-era leaders fulfill.

It seems reasonable to assume that Avraham was motivated by his love of Hashem. This love was so intense that he felt compelled to share with others his discovery of Hashem and to draw them toward His service and worship. This conclusion also suggests that the commandment that compels latter-era leaders to assume the burden of community leadership is the commandment to love Hashem.

7. The self-serving leader does not fulfill any commandment
Now Raban Gamliel’s position makes sense. When a person performs a typical commandment, even if the person’s motives are less than ideal, the commandment is fulfilled. For example, if a person performs the commandment of dwelling in a succah on Succot because he enjoys spending time outdoors, the perimeters of the commandment are met and the mitzvah is fulfilled. In other words, whether the person dwelled in the succah because he wished to fulfill the Torah commandment or because he enjoys the outdoors, he has dwelled in the succah. The act required by the mitzvah has been performed and thereby the commandment fulfilled. It makes sense to encourage the person to perform the commandment for even a personal motive. He will become accustomed to performing the mitzvah and hopefully, in time, his motives will become more ideal.

This reasoning does not apply to the commandment to love Hashem. The mitzvah of love of Hashem is fulfilled consequential to one’s encounter with the Creator. It is a response to this encounter. The mitzvah is not, in-essence, a performance. It is an experience of adoration and devotion. Love is – by its very definition – a selfless experience. True love requires selfless devotion to the object of one’s adoration. Self-interest and true love are antithetical to one another. Therefore, the mitzvah is not even subject to fulfillment in response to a personal motive.

As Avraham demonstrated, authentic leadership is an expression of and derives its legitimacy from the commandment of love of Hashem. Therefore, leadership is only the fulfillment of this commandment when it is motivated by and is a pure expression of this love. If one leads for personal advantage and gain, no Torah commandment is fulfilled through the leadership.[4]

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:1.
[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Bertinoro, Commentary the Mishne, Mesechet Avot 2:2.
[3] Mesechet Pesacim 50b.
[4] Compare to Torat Avot on Pirke Avot 2:2.