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Korach, Leadership and Shimon Peres #681

06/11/2021 05:40:08 PM

Jun11

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Korach

“Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 13:3)

Korach, Leadership and Shimon Peres

This week’s Torah portion poses a question particularly germane to the political climate we are currently enduring.

Do we want leaders who assume their positions reluctantly, or should we rally behind those who claim, “I can do it better?”

This week’s Torah portion shines a light on events that occurred 3,330 years ago and, perhaps, can inspire us as we consider today’s political climate. 

As the Torah portion opens, Korach, a leading member of the prestigious Kehatites family, mounts a leadership challenge against Moses. He asks several critical questions, including:

“Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 13:3). Korach clearly wants Moses’ job.

He and 250 other tribal leaders question why Moses has been named leader for life, with brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam, at his side.

On the surface, Korach’s challenge appears to be reasonable. He observes, “For all of the community is holy.” But there is more.

Our tradition (midrash) teaches that Korach and his followers begin questioning high taxes — even though the funds are earmarked to help the poor and to support community institutions.

He continues to split hairs, takes incidents out of context and questions Moses’ competency in a relentless attempt to undermine his leadership.

At first, Moses throws himself on the ground in grief. I envision Moses humbly asking himself whether he truly has the skills to lead. After all, at the Burning Bush, he declared himself unworthy.

Ultimately, God steps in and confirms Moses as God’s choice. Discredited, Korach and his followers are swallowed as the ground opens up.

Over the centuries, many scholars have posed the question, “What actually did Korach do that was so wrong?”

And the resounding answer is, “He chose bluster and ego, over true public service.” It’s a lesson that takes us to modern times.

For in a world where most of us are consumed with daily routines and responsibilities, we rely on leaders — hopefully those of high moral character and humility — to guide us.

I’d like to share a personal story about one of those leaders — Shimon Peres, a former Israeli president.

In 2005, during my final days working in government, I was asked to accompany a politician to Israel. He was interested in developing an environmental partnership between Israel and the Province of Alberta.

The southern area of Alberta, Canada is subject to flooding, as are certain parts of Israel. At a time when anti-Israel sentiment was raging throughout the world, the Alberta government decided to make a public statement: Israel is a noble and innovative country, worthy of collaboration to help address a common problem.

We arrived in Israel with a $1 million check earmarked to develop effective ways to plant more trees and vegetation in order to curb these deadly floods.

Most of our week was spent touring environmental projects, until late one afternoon, when the phone rang — the government of Israel was calling. 

President Shimon Peres wanted to meet with us.

At about 9 pm, we boarded a bus that wound through the streets of Tel Aviv, ultimately stopping in front of the Shalom Tower.

Officials from Israel and Canada, along with the media, were shepherded up a side elevator to a board room where we waited in silence around a large oblong table.

Suddenly, the door opened, and in walked Shimon Peres. He took his seat, surveyed the 20 visitors, then turned his attention to a white board as scientists described their proposed joint project.

Peres sat quietly, listening with focus. His eyes did not dart. When the scientists completed their presentation, there was silence.

Peres then gently cleared his throat and began to speak in a tone so soft that each of us had to lean forward to hear his words.

“This is very promising research you have planned for both Israel and Canada,” he began. “But it will mean nothing unless you can make this technology available to those in Africa, who suffer worse floods than we do.

“There is a bigger world out there, which needs our help.”

Peres then rose from his seat and said, “Thank you all for sharing this with me. You have helped me look not at just this problem, but also its possible solutions.”

He posed for a few photos, then left the room. And we sat there silently. So few words — but so inspiring.

At that moment, 15 years ago, it became apparent to me that true leaders do not need a lot of quotable words to be effective. Rather, they focus, absorb and offer sage advice to encourage those around them to confidently move forward.

I thought about Shimon Peres as I reviewed this week’s Torah portion about Korach — who chose challenge, bluster and a multitude of words, over thoughtfulness, humility and a vision that begins at home, but extends beyond its borders.

Shimon Peres was by no means perfect, but in that moment, through his soft voice and his full attention, he inspired me to consider what leadership truly is.

Our oral tradition talks about Korach as an example of how not to lead. It notes that, “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure…” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) Such was the controversy of Korach and his congregation.

Watching parts of the New York mayoral debate this past week, I recalled the words of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), who referenced the leadership battle between Moses and Korach, indicating, “True messengers present themselves as unworthy of the task…Only persons motivated by self-interest, eager for the position of leader proclaim, I can do it better.”

How many times in our lives have we been called upon to lead an organization or a committee? Have we eagerly jumped in with both feet, or have we initially said, “I’m not sure I can do it?”

However, as my late uncle, Walter Roll, once advised his son feeling nervous about entering rabbinical school, “The doing makes you ready.”

This world has many critics like Korach. As we consider their words, we need to ask, “What are their motives, and are they proposing alternatives worthy of “the doing?”

Almost five years after Shimon Peres’ passing, I recall his leadership style: He listened carefully, spoke softly, began locally and inspired globally.

During this week, as we consider Korach’s failed leadership challenge, let us reflect upon the soft and universal vision of Shimon Peres. Let us consider Moses’ humility, and draw upon it during these challenging times.

The world could use more like them. May their memories always be for a blessing. May they continue to inspire.

Now more than ever.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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