Korah: Good leaders seek harmony, reject enmity

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Numbers 16:1-18:32

I Samuel 11:14-12:22

Of all the characters in the Bible, Korah, leader of a rebellion against Moses, is considered one of the most villainous. The rabbis viewed his rebellion as egregious as the sins of idolatry, incest and murder. This week's Torah portion begins: "And Korah took" (Numbers 16:1). The text is unclear about exactly what Korah took, but it suggests that Korah was interested in taking power, influence and prestige. As a result, Korah — motivated by jealousy, hatred and a propensity to argue — is included in a talmudic list of cunning characters that also cites Cain and Haman (Sotah 9b).

Particularly contemptuous is Korah's sin of taking without giving, a grievous offense according to Jewish tradition. A Shulchan Aruch reference (Yoreh De'ah 248:1) argues that no one should be just a taker; even the recipient of charity must be given a little extra in order for him to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity). In this way, even the destitute individual experiences the dignity of becoming a giver while living with the affront of being a taker.

Similarly, the biblical notion of bringing an offering also incorporates the element of taking. When we give, we also receive. When we do God's work by giving, we take the knowledge that the world is just a little better because of our generosity. The story of Korah teaches that it is not possible to separate giving from taking. Every act of giving should also include taking; every act of taking should also include giving.

More than just taking earned Korah the disdain of the biblical author. This Torah portion also teaches that a dispute should have truth as its goal, a quality lacking in Korah. Disputes should never occur merely for the sake of arguing and need not end in bitterness and recrimination.

The best-known example of seeking the truth while arguing in a constructive way is that of Hillel and Shammai, first-century rabbis noted for taking opposing sides in disputes. They lived the mandate of Leviticus 19:17: "You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart," and walked away from their debates remaining friends. Feeling neither angry nor defeated, they were satisfied that every argument leading to the truth had been aired.

So anxious was Hillel to make peace in disputes between other adversaries that he would shuttle between the two parties, reporting to each that the other had positive things to say about him; in fact, neither had.

This Torah portion shows the kind of direction a leader can provide. Korah escalated a difficult situation in an adversarial way instead of attempting to problem solve and create harmony. In contrast to the rebellious, power-hungry Korah, Aaron earned the title of "peacemaker."

In a separate incident in this portion, a plague raged among the people. Instead of distancing himself from the community and protecting himself, Aaron "ran to the midst of the congregation" to deal with the desperate situation (Numbers 17:12). Thus, Aaron's eagerness to solve problems and to stand by his people led Hillel to identify him as a mediator and one who would go to great lengths to seek harmony among opponents( Pirke Avot, 1:12).

Parashat Korah ends with a metaphor that can be used to understand the purest motives of a leader. In Numbers 17:23, each of the 12 leaders of the ancestral tribes is asked to inscribe his name on a staff, which was placed in the meeting tent overnight. The next day "the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds."

The Hebrew word for almond is shaked, which means diligence and commitment. The contrast of Korah with Aaron demonstrates that those who serve and lead understand the true responsibility and the meaning of the commitment. Leadership should animate and teach individuals to reach within themselves for their greatest talents and abilities. It should encourage ideas to sprout, flower and bear fruit.