Parshat Korach: Leadership as Service

If you seek to understand an accusation, look at the accuser, not the accused.

Think, for example, about one of the most famous of anti-Semitic myths: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (the classic account is Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide; more recently the distinguished Israeli jurist Hadassa Ben Itto published her own account, The Lie That Wouldn’t Die).

According to the Protocols, Jews form a secret conspiracy that controls the world’s banks, media, economies and politicians. To those who know the tragic depths of Jewish history, no myth could be more ironic. Jews have almost never united for anything for very long. Jewish history is a series of variations on the theme of disagreement and division. Though some individual Jews have from time to time held positions of power, the Jewish people as a whole has been marked by powerlessness. Indeed while the Protocols were being concocted, Jews were being slaughtered in pogroms throughout Russia. Most significantly, Jews constitute one of the few civilizations in history that has never dreamed of building an empire. From a Jewish perspective, The Protocols are unintelligible.

But from the perspective of its author it was very intelligible indeed. It was written – as newly published Russian archives confirm — at the turn of the twentieth century by a Russian aristocrat exiled in France, Mathieu Golovinski, who wrote it for the Russian secret police, to convince Czar Nicholas II that Jews were behind the political unrest in Russia and to persuade him to abandon liberal reforms. To do so, he plagiarized a satirical essay by French attorney Maurice Joly, The Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (1864), replacing Napoleon III – the villain of the original text – with the Jews. It was a crude fabrication, exposed as a forgery by The Times of London in 1921, and a court in Berne in 1935. The fact that it is well- known to be a forgery has not stopped it being a best seller ever since, first in Nazi Germany, now throughout much of the Arab world.

Secret conspiracies and dreams of empire make no sense within Judaism’s universe of thought. But to members of the secret police in the last years of Czarist Russia it made very good sense indeed. It was a projection onto an outsider of a fantasy they themselves held. If you seek to understand an accusation, look at the accuser, not the accused.

The Korach rebellion, the most serious of the many challenges to Moses’ leadership, was a complex affair. As the commentators point out, there was not one party to the rebellion but three, each with its own grievance. There was Korach himself, Moses’ and Aaron’s cousin, indignant that the supreme leadership positions had gone to one family, the sons of Amram, while he, the eldest son of Amram’s brother Yitzhar, had had no equivalent honour. There were the Reubenites, Datan and Aviram, who felt that their tribe – that of Jacob’s firstborn son – had not received its due share of leadership roles. And there were the 250 community leaders who may have felt that they had not been given appropriate honour in the service of the sanctuary. Some suggest that they were representatives of the firstborn, who felt aggrieved that, after the Golden Calf, their priestly function was transferred to the tribe of Levi.

The precise details of the narrative are complex, but one thing is luminously clear: the accusation the rebels made against Moses and Aaron:

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above (titnas’u) the Lord’s assembly?” (Num. 16: 3) Two of the rebels, Datan and Aviram, went further:

“Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert? And now you also want to lord it (tistarer) over us?” (16: 13) Applied to Moses, the accusations are unintelligible. This is the man of whom we read, a mere four chapters back: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” That such a man would “set himself above” others, or “lord it over them” is palpably absurd. There is only one way of making sense of the rebels’ claim. If you seek to understand an accusation, look at the accuser, not the accused.

Korach, Datan, Aviram and their co-conspirators saw leadership as status, power, dominance, superiority. That is what they sought for themselves. But Jewish leadership is not like that – on principle, it cannot be like that. Were it so, it would be unconscionable. Judaism is built on the premise of the non-negotiable dignity of the human person. No leader is allowed to “lord it over” those he or she leads. The Torah says of even a king of Israel that that he must not “act haughtily towards his fellows” (Deut. 17: 20).

The sages said the same. The Talmud (Hagigah 5b) says that “When a leader lords it over a community, the Holy One weeps every day because of him.” The Midrash Tanchuma comments on the verse (Deut. 29: 9) “All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your G-d-leaders of your tribes, your elders and officials – all the men of Israel”. The difficulty is obvious: the verse begins by talking about leaders, and ends by talking about “all the men of Israel”. The Midrash reads it thus: “[G-d said to them], ‘Even though I have appointed for you leaders, elders and officials, all of you are equal before Me’ – that is why it says, ‘all are men of Israel.’”

Few propositions proved to be more fateful to the history of Israel, because of one specific event. Towards the end of the reign of King Solomon, the people grew restless at the burden he had placed on them, in part because of the building of the Temple. When the king died, the people formed a delegation – led by an ambitious would-be leader, Jeroboam – to Solomon’s son Rehoboam. They had a simple and specific demand:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” (I Kings 12: 4)

Rehoboam told them to come back in three days’ time and he would give them an answer. He then went to the elders who had been his father’s counselors. “What would you advise me to say?” he asked. Their answer is fascinating:

“If today you will be a servant (eved) to these people and serve them (va-avad’tem) and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants (avadim).” (I Kings 12: 7) The task of a king, they said, is to serve the people, not to impose burdens on them. It was wise advice. Unfortunately, Rehoboam, young, impetuous, ignored it. Instead he asked his friends, with whom he had grown up. Their advice was the opposite. In effect, they said: Show them who is boss. Tell them: “My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”

Rehoboam did so. The result was predictable. The majority of the people followed Jeroboam. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the king. The kingdom split in two. It was the beginning of the end of the first commonwealth. Authoritarian leadership – in which the leader sets himself above and lords it over the people – has never been acceptable in Israel.

There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud (Horayot 10 a-b) in which Rabban Gamliel wanted to appoint two rabbis, Elazar Chisma and Yochanan ben Gudgada, to leadership positions. They were reluctant to accept. Rabban Gamliel then said to them: “Do you suppose I am conferring rulership (serarah) on you? No: I am conferring service (avdut) on you.”

A true leader is the servant of those he or she leads. That is what Moses understood, and what Korach and his fellow rebels did not.

We must never forget the danger that lies beneath the surface of the human heart
Thought for the Day – BBC Radio 4 – June 2010

Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the victims of the shootings in Cumbria that left 12 dead, 25 injured, and families and communities torn apart. And in the aftermath people have been asking, how could it have happened?

The killer, Derrick Bird, was described by those who knew him as quiet, unassuming and friendly. He had just become a grandfather. He looked after his elderly mother, enjoyed his hobbies and had just come back from a holiday. A close friend said: “He was a really nice guy. Something must have clicked in his head. He must have just snapped.”

People do just snap, and there have been other similar tragedies in recent times, in Dunblane in Scotland, and in America in Columbine and Virginia Tech. Usually the killers are younger but it can happen in the most unpredictable way, leaving behind a trail of grief and bewilderment.

One of the great errors of modern thought was to believe that we are rational creatures who make decisions on the basis of deliberation and calculation. Reason, said the heroes of the enlightenment, can cure of us the passions and prejudices of the past. We now know that the human mind doesn’t work that way.
Neuroscientists have shown how decision making is inseparable from emotion. There are two systems at work in the human brain: the amygdala which generates highly charged emotional reactions, and the prefrontal cortex, more rational and deliberative, capable of thinking beyond the immediacy of the situation. The second system is significantly slower, so it’s always at risk of being overridden under stress or fear or anger. That’s how we often act irrationally and how, in extreme cases, ordinary people can commit terrible crimes.

Christianity called this original sin. Jews called it the evil inclination. “The heart,” said Jeremiah, “is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The Bible traces this back to the first two human children, when Cain in a fit of anger killed his brother Abel — then said, in sudden realisation of his guilt, “My sin is more than I can bear.” That’s why perpetrators of violence like Derrick Bird often end by turning it against themselves.

So for all our everyday calm, we must never forget the danger that lies, like an unexploded mine, just beneath the surface of the human heart. Meanwhile to the injured and the bereaved, we send our shared grief and our prayers.