Sara Y. Sapadin

On the Dangers of Immoral Leadership

The story of America’s unlikely road to independence, is one grounded in impassioned rebellion and revolution. When the Patriots finally decided they’d had enough of British Rule, they rose up to fight for their liberty and self-determination.  Today, we celebrate the very rebels who dared overthrow the yoke of British Oppression. We celebrate their bravery, their temerity, and their dogged determination.  We celebrate their perseverance in the face of great challenge and their unwavering faith in the principles of their movement.  We are here because of what these rebels, our revolutionary forebears, pursued and accomplished.  And we are free because they believed in freedom’s cause and made every sacrifice to achieve it.

This past week, a massive rebellion erupted in our Torah portion, Parashat Korach, as well.  It was led by a Levite named Korach, Reubenites Dathan, Aviram, and On, and 250 “chieftains” of the Israelite community. Together, they “rise up” against Moses and publicly challenge his authority.  To Moses, Korach proclaims: “You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, and Adonai is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourself above Adonai’s congregation?” [1]

On its face, Korach’s accusation sounds like a legitimate outcry against Moses’ consolidation of power. He openly laments the religious hierarchy that defines the community and takes issue with the exclusivity of the priestly class.  Korach wants to understand: Why aren’t ALL Levites qualified for the priesthood?  Why aren’t all Israelites qualified, for that matter?  Filled with disdain for a system he believes is categorically unfair, Korach demands change.

But Korach’s protest does not end well; his fury-filled tirade concludes with the earth swallowing him and his fellow dissidents, leaving behind a profoundly problematic legacy that echoes throughout our history.  When it comes to Korach, neither our Rabbis nor our later commentators equivocate; he is almost universally reviled, and vilified at nearly every single turn.

Two rebellions converge on this Shabbat; one righteous, one wicked. What is it about Korach’s rebellion that renders it so evil and ultimately, so disingenuous? And what is it about Korach himself that leads our rabbis and commentators to utterly excoriate his character and denounce his name?

Number 1: Korach separates himself from the Israelite community.

We need only look at the first two words of our portion to get a sense of who Korach is and what his true motives are.  The portion begins: “Vayikach Korach–And Korach took.” Some translate this phrase to mean, and “Korach took himself out of the community”—in dissention and opposition.[2]  Korach doesn’t see his fate as intertwined with the rest of the Israelites; rather, he sees his path as wholly separate. Thus, he detaches himself –not only from the community, but from their common mission, declaring a mission all his own.

One of the foundational teachings of Judaism comes from the great sage Hillel.  It is a warning against unchecked arrogance and self-reverence, ego and pride, and it says, “Do not separate yourself from the community. [And do] not trust in yourself until the day of your death…”[3] Korach was plainly and proudly guilty of both.

Number 2: Korach is dangerously persuasive.[4]

If we look again at the first two words of the portion, “Vayikach Korach–And Korach took,” there is yet another translation that reveals a great deal about Korach’s personality.  This translation reads, “And Korach took men [with him]”[5]; meaning, Korach reached out to men like Dathan, Aviram and On, and convinced them to join his unjust cause.  Korach is shrewd, smooth, and utterly convincing.  People listen to Korach. They believe his bluster. They are taken with his bravado, and they absorb his grievances as their own.  And Korach’s “followers” fall hook line and sinker for the false narrative he creates about the Israelite community, a narrative in which they deserve the power held by Moses and Aaron. Sadly, Korach’s followers will commit the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this narrative.  But Korach is that slick, and frankly, he is that powerful, having persuaded so many to join his dishonorable cause.  These traits only amplify the danger around Korach, and lend weight, in God’s eyes, to the argument that he must be defeated, no matter what.

 Number 3: Korach is exceedingly jealous.

The Medieval commentator, Rabbeinu Bachya Ben Asher, spills a lot of ink explaining these first two words in our portion, Vayikach Korach–And Korach took.” As he expounds on the various translations, he also takes time to discuss what he calls “Korach’s grievances,” the first being that Korach is ‘“dressed” in jealousy.”[6]

A bit of background: Korach is identified as a son of Yitzhar, grandson of Kehat and great-grandson of Levi.  While he is not a Kohain, he is still a member of a very prestigious Levite family.  But that was not enough for Korach.  He wanted more—more power, more status, more prestige. He is jealous of Moses and Aaron, and all who occupy the priestly caste.

Korach, we learn, isn’t seeking to overthrow Moses in order to democratize the Israelite system. He isn’t looking to make the Israelite community more equal or fair.  He wants the position for himself, and all that this position entails. Korach is self-serving, envious, and deeply power-hungry; a recipe both Moses and God identify as disastrous from the start.

 And Number 4: Korach models the very worst kind of candidacy for leadership.

Our Tradition’s overriding attitude towards Korach can be encapsulated by one of the most oft-quoted texts from our Mishna, which states:  “Which is an argument for the sake of Heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of Heaven? The argument of Korach and his company.”[7]  Korach is the prime example of the dishonorable disputant, and his rebellion models the very worst kind of argument, one based not in respect or truth-seeking, but in degradation and power-grabbing.  His insurgency is, at the end of the day, about winning, and about gaining status and position, at the cost of someone else losing such status and position. Korach has no interest in discussion or exchange; he seeks to triumph through intimidation, harassment, and hostility.  Moreover, Korach doesn’t want understanding or resolution; he wants victory.  An argument like Korach’s, based in ambition, greed, and teeming self-regard, is the very definition of an argument that is not for the sake of heaven. Moreover, Korach’s argument threatens the very people it claims to support. Korach does not stand for “Adonai’s congregation.”  He stands only for himself.

Here, embedded in the pages of our Torah, we find an age-old warning about those who would seek positions of power.  Beware, says our Torah, of those who separate themselves from the community, and those who raise themselves up over others. Beware of those who easily persuade by means of fear, intimidation, and falsehood, and beware of those who are driven not by justice, but by jealousy.  And finally, beware of those who argue not for the sake of virtue, but rather for the sake of victory.  These are the lessons, prescient as ever, that Korach calls out to us.

And so, as we continue to celebrate our democracy in the wake of our 4th of July holiday, a democracy borne of the American revolution and its noble uprisings, may we also remember just how fragile this democracy is, and how vulnerable it is to the Korachs in our midst; the Korachs who would aggrandize executive power; the Korachs who would weaken checks and balances, the Korachs who would spread lies and disinformation; and the Korachs who would undermine the very institutions meant to protect our rights and freedoms.  May we do everything we can to choose leaders who stand not for themselves, but for our country, and leaders who seek to safeguard our democracy, rather than subvert it.

Today, tomorrow, and every day, we each have the power to make our voices heard. Let us not forsake it. Instead, let us boldly exercise the freedoms so many fought so hard to obtain, in our pursuit to not only achieve liberty, justice and freedom for all, but to preserve the very soul of our nation.

[1] Numbers 16:2-3

[2] Onkelos and Rashi on Numbers 16:1

[3] Pirkei Avot 2:5

[4] Rashi on Numbers 16:1- “…he attracted (won over) the chiefs of the Sanhedrin amongst them (the people) by fine words.”

[5] Ibn Ezra on Numbers 16:1

[6] Rabbeinu Bahya on Numbers 16:1

[7] Mishnah Avot 5:17

About the Author
Sara Sapadin is a rabbi and mother of four. Ordained by HUC-JIR, Sara currently serves as one of the rabbis at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, where her work primarily focuses on conversion, adult engagement, and interfaith initiatives. Sara has written for a number of Jewish publications and is also a proud contributor to The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press).
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