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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

Korah: True Leadership

(The following teaching is in honor of the marriage of Shahab and Jessica Shaolian, may they always be blessed with all that is good in life.)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus”. Although not a Rabbi, along with basing our molding on Jewish ethics, this understanding of leadership could have been found in our Talmud, and is certainly a primary understanding of this week’s Torah portion, Korah (which is probably what inspired Dr. King to say his words.)

This is a famous story of rebellion and true leadership. Moses, who never desired to lead the Hebrews, is challenged by a Levite named Korah. Korah and his followers want to lead the Hebrews, and demand such from Moses and Aaron. Moses schedules a test of leadership between he and Korah’s followers, and at the test the next day, the earth fully swallows Korah and his followers. In front of the entire community, God demonstrates his desire for Moses to lead, even though Korah wants the leadership position that Moses is recalcitrant to accept. The remainder of the portion details how the Levites should act in service to Aaron’s descendants (the Cohanim) and for the people.

If only we could ensure that our leaders were not in their position because of selfish desires, but rather because they were destined to serve (even if they didn’t want to…which is the case of most great leaders both biblical and modern). How much better would the world be if our leaders in all areas from business to religious to political were all people who were committed to service of others rather than personal glory, profit, or power.

Sadly, we all too often find leaders who are looking for those personal goals as opposed to the goal of Moses: that of serving God and a greater community. And as they gain power, many leaders show their true colors. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

It has always concerned me that leaders often seek personal power instead of being committed to service. This is obvious in the realm of politics, but it is sadly true in religion as well. I remember being a rabbinic student and asking a friend and mentor, Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaffer, why so many of my fellow students were in rabbinic school given that they clearly didn’t care about God or Judaism. His reply was sad and true. “Where else Michael can you complete graduate school, and if you’re willing to work anywhere in the country, can have an immediate job with a six figure salary and people are forced to laugh at your jokes?” While, thank God, we have many great Rabbis who are committed to our traditions, people, and God; we also have and have had far too many who are only concerned with money, personal prestige, or where they can socialize. It has always been my opinion that this is what has driven many American Jews away from Judaism: they see Rabbis who don’t even try to reflect Jewish values and ethics, but have gotten lost in their own echo chamber of self-importance. When our religious leaders try harder to be mensches, I have faith that the people will be stronger and also more committed to Judaism in all of its beauty.

It is even more pronounced when it comes to political leadership. It seems as if the political system is now set up in such a way that those people who just want to serve are almost forbidden from serving. How often have each of us seen politicians on both sides of the aisle prostitute themselves and their values in order to achieve a position of leadership? We see in on every level from local to state to federal elected offices. And even when someone enters office with good values, it seems as if it is only a matter of time before they get lost in their positions and lose their values. (Think of all the Jewish members of Congress, who have been quiet as anti-Semites such as Omar and Tlaib in Congress boldly attack Jews and Israel with impudence.)

The model of leadership found in this week’s Torah reading shows a different way: a humble way of commitment to serving a community with passion, courage, and consistency rather than for personal glory and power. A way of leadership based on leading by doing our best to live an ethical life true to the values of our faith and teachings. Called “the Mosaic Model” in many churches, it means making the choice to lead by example of basing our lives on powerful and everlasting values rather than the temporal pleasures of the physical world of power and prestige.

As Jews, we are to be a light to the nations…a nation of spiritual role models for the world. Coach John Wooden was fond of teaching his athletes, “Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating”. That is the Jewish way. We are reminded yet again in this week’s reading that we are to be leaders for the world not by seeking leadership, but by living ethically, joyously, and with a goal of service to others.

May we all find our leadership qualities within, demonstrate them without, and always, always remember to live in a way that is deserving of the place God has put us as ethical leaders in the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Michael Barclay

June 11, 2021

1st of Tamuz, 5781

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