Parashat Korah

Crises of Leadership

We need to learn from the examples of Korah and Moses and ask ourselves, "Are we more worried about our own egos than about the Jewish people as a whole?"

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This portion features the well-known assault by Korah and others on Moses' leadership. Most will argue that Korah attempted to arrogate himself into a position of power. Following this line of logic, Korah's posture was deemed unacceptable, because Moses' leadership emanated from Divine selection. Thus, Korah's challenge to Moses' authority was interpreted as a direct affront to God.

Some rabbinic authorities argue that this incident was the most dangerous moment during the entire journey through the desert, even more vicious and damaging than the attacks of Amalek. Korah's uprising, of course, had to be crushed if God's rule was to be acknowledged and maintained. After all, this is the thread that holds the entire Torah together.

But should we assume that all challenges to authority are similarly invalid and must be met with the same reaction? How do we know when such challenges are "righteous"--to borrow an appropriate term from the venacular--and should be encouraged and sustained?  By probing the failed leadership plan of Korah, perhaps we can gain some insight for our own lives to help us navigate through the challenges that we must deal with every day. 

Korah's Critical Flaw

Korah was a man of the people. He emerged from the masses and thus seemed to speak for the common person. That was the foundation of his leadership. By portraying himself as a representative of the people, Korah was able to gather the support of others among the community.

But Korah was anything but a representative of the people who advocated for the concerns of the entire community. What seems to be Korah's critical flaw was that he more interested in self-aggrandizement than ensuring a safe and profitable future for the ancient Israelites--and by extension the future of the Jewish people. Furthermore, he did not have an intimate relationship with the Divine. Because of both shortcomings, he failed.

Like all leaders, Moses was clearly imperfect. His character flaws were many, but he was able to overcome them in order to lead the people. As with Korah, when Moses allowed self-interest to guide him, he failed. Moses only became a successful leader when he learned to place the needs of the people ahead of his own.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.