By Simon Jacobson
‘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 journey.
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’
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
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 leader!
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
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 the haze.
Oh, how we are in need for such a leader today…