‘Why do we need a leader’ is the precise theme
of this week’s Torah portion. Korach and his cronies challenge
Moses with the following argument: “All the people in the community
are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting yourselves
above G-d’s congregation?”
The fact that Korach’s argument is documented
for posterity is proof that his position has merit. Indeed,
Korach was a ‘pikach,’ a wise man. Thus his argument is not
to be easily dismissed; it is a wise viewpoint that requires
deliberation and consideration.
Korach was essentially arguing against bureaucratic
hierarchies. The Torah and Judaism are built on the firm and
unwavering principle that all people have a Divine soul (created
in the “image of G-d”), and by that virtue have direct access
to G-d at all times. Where then, Korach asked, is there room
for leaders that are “above G-d’s congregation”?
No one individual owns the Torah. It belongs to
all people. Why, because Torah is not a product for marketing,
nor is it a corporation. Torah is Divine truth – a blueprint
for life, consisting of knowledge and information given to all
people to guide them in finding their way in this world. As
such, Torah is free. No one has monopoly on Torah and no one
can demand ‘royalties’ for its study. Indeed, the Talmud says
that every child is taught the Torah in its mother’s womb during
pregnancy; in each of our psyches is ingrained the Divine will
and wisdom – all the tolls that we will need for our life’s
This powerful fact can be appreciated by seeing
the effects of the converse approach. “From my enemies I become
wise.” Whenever a fascist or totalitarian regime comes to power,
the first thing it establishes is a ‘bureau of truth of information.’
Why, because to control a population you need to control the
minds of the people. ‘Propaganda’ is what they call it. This,
the regime will control the media and the airwaves, to ensure
that the people hear and see only the information that the leaders
want to convey. Free press – the free flow of information is
anathema and definite suicide to any dictatorial power. As Thomas
Jefferson said, that given the choice, he would choose a free
press to free government. Because without a free press there
is no free government.
Whenever you hear that there is a “bureau of truth
and information,” rest assured that it neither ‘truth’ nor ‘information’…
Korach argued just that. “All the people in the
community are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting
yourselves above G-d’s congregation.” Why do we need leaders
and teachers and run the risk of abuse. As we have so often
seen, lately as well, how so called ‘authorities’ have abused
their position, and have not taught the pure truth, but their
distorted version of the truth. How many people have been hurt
by innocently believing in their teachers, only later (some
later than others, and some have yet) to find out how those
teachers misrepresented the truth?!
So Korach argued, why risk it? Torah was given
by G-d to all the people, and they are all holy, why give exclusive
power to leaders, power that can be abused?!
3314 years ago the Torah was given in the Sinai
wilderness precisely to pre-empt the possibility of fascist
abuse. By giving the Torah in a wilderness, which is no-mans’
land, G-d was telling us that “no one city can lay claim to
the Torah. I have given My truth to all of you, and you each
have access to it.” Incredible fact. The Bible – the Torah –
is the biggest best seller in history. Yet, no one owns it.
No one can claim royalties for it!
And the Torah was passed on from generation to
generation, in an unbroken chain, with no corporate transitions
and bureaucratic infrastructures. Moses did not appoint a ‘board
of directors’ and a new “CEO.” Moses left us the Torah and his
students, and so it continued from generation to generation.
As delineated in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Moses
received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua; Joshua
to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets…”.
What then was Korach’s mistake, and grave mistake
at that? His argument seems plausible and even true. What is
the answer to his question: Why do we need leaders, and what
will prevent them from abusing their power?
Korach’s serious error was in his understanding
of the nature of a true leader. In his mind a leader meant a
powerful person who serves as a human intermediary between G-d
and the people, between the Torah’s truth and the students.
He thought that a leader is defined by his strengths – his wisdom,
his charisma, his wealth, all the qualities necessary to lead
a large group of individuals.
A true leader is precisely the opposite. He is
defined not by what he is, but by what he is not.
The single most important quality of a true leader is: bittul
– humility (“Moses was the most humble among all people on Earth”).
He is invisible, and therefore becomes a vehicle (merkavah)
to G-dliness; he is a living example and the epitome of how
G-d wants a person to be.
Deifying individuals is anathema to Judaism. Idolatry
is a cardinal sin. We only worship G-d and G-d alone. The greatness
of a Tzaddik, a Rebbe, a Moses is not the power of the individual,
but the power of G-d that is working through that person. Indeed,
there cannot be even the slightest tinge of individual ego or
personality that gets in the way and does not allow the inherent
G-dliness to shine through.
And the reason we need Moses, and a Moses in each
generation (Moses passed on the Torah to Joshua, etc.), is because
we as individuals are consumed and overwhelmed by material life,
we have our egos and personalities that get in the way to accessing
G-d and the Torah’s truth. We need a selfless leader, a teacher
to guide us and show us the way to access our souls and G-d.
And when Moses guides us he does not show us how he (Moses)
accesses G-d, but he shows us how we have direct access to G-d
through our Divine souls.
The true leader, in other words, is not an intermediary
that stands in the way between us and G-d; his selflessness
and bittul allows him to be a transparent channel in helping
us connect to G-d in our own unique way. A true teacher does
not teach you his own truth, he teaches you that it is
a Higher truth and that it belongs to you as much as it does
to the teacher. The true teacher has no ego, he recognizes at
all times that he is merely a messenger passing on truth from
a greater place. Indeed, the greatest title of a Torah scholar
is not “chacham,” a wise person, but “talmid chacham,” the student
of a wise person. The scholar always feels the bittul that he
is merely a student of Divine wisdom. “Reishis chohma yiras
Hashem” (the beginning and foundation of wisdom is awe of G-d).
Korach’s reasoning was accurate in the fact that
all people are holy and have direct access to G-d. There was
also justification in his questioning the role of leadership,
exposing its potential abuse and distortions. That is why the
Torah documents Korach’s argument.
But even if his arguments had merit, Korach’s
intentions were wrong. Indeed, though he challenged Moses’ leadership,
he demanded leadership for himself (very reminiscent of the
fact that though Communism theoretically argues the equality
of all classes, Communist leaders were the most notorious abusers
of leadership) – all the more reason for needing a true selfless
Korach was absolutely wrong because he did not
understand the true nature of a leader – one who is totally
humble and selfless. Leadership is not about power and ambition;
it is about bittul and selflessness. And that is the only reason
that we can trust a true leader, and the reason G-d trusted
Moses. When G-d chose Moses to be the leader, Moses strongly
resisted. “I am a man of no words” was one of the many arguments
Moses offered in refusing to be the leader. G-d replies: “Who
then gives a man the mouth to speak if not I.” G-d essentially
chose Moses precisely because he did not want the job, and because
he would not speak his own words; he would speak G-d’s words.
This type of leader was completely new to Korach
and his men. No one had ever met a leader like that. So they
challenged the very concept based on their limited experience.
But as a result of their argument we gain a new understanding
of the nature of a true leader. This is the value of Torah relating
to us the story of Korach, and we owe Korach a great debt for
allowing the role of true leadership to be clarified for us,
and exposing the distortions of false leadership.
This story offers us a very relevant message today.
I submit, that many of us are simply skeptical
about a true leader – a Rebbe – because we never met one. The
so-called ‘leaders’ around us – political, business, sports,
entertainment – are essentially at best nothing more that good
administrators, or people driven by aggressive ambition that
allowed them to climb the leadership ladder. I am not even addressing
the rampant corruption surrounding leaders that we are all aware
and reminded of continuously.
I (and many of my colleagues), however, had the
distinct privilege and honor to meet such a leader. A G-dly
man entirely dedicated to the Higher Cause. His name was Rabbi
Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Or simply: The Rebbe – the leader.
As a true leader, humility was his personality.
A man in whose presence you felt not him, but yourself – you
felt that you belong, that you matter and have an indispensable
contribution to make in this world.
With all the current upheaval in a world that
is rapidly changing right before our eyes, the void of true
leadership is glaringly obvious. From the Rebbe I learned how
to access my own soul. I learned how to access the Torah – thousands
of years of history and scholarship – to understand our lives
today and the forces reshaping our geo-political as well as
our psycho-spiritual landscapes.
On Motzei Shabbat Parshat Korach, Saturday night
of Tammuz 3 5754 (June 12, 1994), Korach’s challenge to Moses
manifested itself. We have all been challenged to understand
the role of a Rebbe-leader in our lives today.
In the last eight years – and especially in the
last year – the world has changed dramatically, with many more
changes to come. We are desperately in need of true leadership
– and there is no question that G-d would not challenge us without
providing us with the necessary tools. Even as Korach questions
the role of leader, the continuing Torah portion provides us
with the power to
find the answer, that yes, we need a leader, and yes,
Moses is G-d’s chosen leader.
I turn to my Rebbe and his teachings – explaining
the times in which we live from a Torah perspective – to make
sense of the unsettling events surrounding us today. And I find
enormous strength and clarity in the Torah vision.
We each are challenged today to answer Korach’s
argument. If we do not want to be left floundering amidst countless
questions in an increasingly confusing world, it behooves us
to turn to Moses and his teachings for hope and direction. We
need to discover the selfless leader that can help us see through
Oh, how we are in need for such a leader today…