Associate Director, Center for Global Judaism
.As a greenhorn rabbi, ordained only a matter of weeks ago, I find myself seeking out more experienced religious and non-profit leaders to figure out how they do what they do. While the moment of ordination was meaningful and moving, it did not (at least as far as I can tell!) endow me with new abilities as a leader. I have so much left to learn, especially about what it means to lead.
One of the more interesting pieces of advice I received from a veteran leader in the public sector was to reread Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” In Shakespeare’s depiction of the leader, King Henry, in contrast to other English rulers, spent many of his formative years out among the people, learning about their wants and needs. Rather than shying away from the public or isolating himself within the palace walls, Henry sought to connect with people and their concerns. Even when he assumed the mantel of leadership, he walked among his troops before a key battle to learn where their thoughts were. Henry was not afraid to hear their fears and pain, even when he was the object of their discontent. He sought out the feedback of the people out, both formally and informally, throughout his life.
Henry V’s example of leadership, though an imperfect analogue for clergy to be sure, evokes a lesson that does still very much apply: religious leaders need not only learn about the aches and pains of people, but must also be able to hear people’s criticism of them as leaders. This is, of course, no easy feat. It requires several interrelated skills, including the ability to receive another person’s criticism of you and discern what to do about it.
Interestingly, Shakespeare’s presentation of Henry V drew into sharp relief a figure that I usually associate more immediately with religious leadership: Moses. When reading this week’s Torah portion of Korah, I was struck by Moses’ strengths and limitations as a leader.
Adopted into the royal family of Egypt as an infant, Moses spent many of his formative years behind palace walls. Key moments in Moses’ growth took place as he left the safe confines of his childhood home and interacted with more and more people. His leadership journey began by witnessing the pain and suffering of the Israelite slaves, ultimately killing an abusive Egyptian taskmaster and fleeing into the wilderness (Exodus 2).
It was in the open air of Midian, far from the palace of his youth, that Moses learned to connect more deeply with other people (including his wife Zipporah) and with God. It was there that Moses was commissioned as a prophet and sent by God to lead the people of Israel to freedom.
Yet, I wonder if traces of Moses’ insular upbringing, living apart from most Egyptians — and for that matter from most Israelites — endured throughout his life. It is unclear to me that Moses spent significant time engaging in conversation with the members of his community, inviting them to share with him their hopes and fears, and their opinions of him as their leader. Even in initially playing the role of mediator in disputes large and small (see Exodus 18), Moses mostly heard from the Israelites in times of dispute or distress. What about the times in between?
This week’s Torah portion is named for the rebel who seemed to have seized upon this weakness, creating a disruptive place for himself in the gap between Moses and the community. Long after the glow of the exodus had passed, Korah led a rebellion of two hundred and fifty community representatives against Moses and Aaron. In challenging the Israelite leaders, he asked a stinging question: “Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Exodus 16:3).
Many commentators over the ages have questioned the validity of Korah’s remark, citing impure motivations for his rebellious ways; many have argued that Moses possessed at his core a desire to serve God and the people, while Korah and his fellow bandits were but power-hungry antagonists (see for example, the comments of the great modern exegete, Nehama Leibowitz, in her “Studies in Bemidbar”).
While the various criticisms leveled against Korah and his co-conspirators may be justified, I think it still important to ask if Moses allowed too much distance to grow between himself and his community. It is hard to criticize such a heroic figure given all that he did for God and for the Children of Israel, but it is important to scrutinize his actions (and inaction) if we are to maximize our learning.
Throughout his many years of leadership, Moses expressed frustration and even outrage when the Israelites complained or expressed grave fear. In fact, in next week’s Torah portion, his anger boils over in one of the most painful interactions with his community recorded in the Torah (Numbers 20). When the Israelites cry out for water at Meribah, Moses strikes a rock in a moment of rage, defying God’s command to bring forth water for the Israelites with a verbal invocation.
To be fair, Moses also demonstrated great compassion for the Israelites, including instances in which God grew so frustrated with the people that He threatened to wipe them out. In fact, there is a stunning example of this dynamic in our Torah portion.
In response to the rebellion and God’s punishment of Korah and the 250 rebels, the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron saying, “You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people (Numbers 17:6). God responded to this latest outburst by telling Moses and Aaron to remove themselves from the midst of the community so that He could “annihilate them in an instant” (17:10). What did Moses do? He immediately instructed Aaron to take a fire pan in hand and make an expiation offering to God on behalf of the people (17:11). The result is that the prophet and high priest stopped the plague of death that God had unleashed against Israel.
Nonetheless, for all of his brilliance, for or all of his excellence, for all of the ways in which Moses will forever be the archetypical religious leader in the Jewish tradition, he was also imperfect. Among his challenges, it seems to me, was his limited ability to engage his community in conversation and to elicit their feedback before and between moments of crisis.
While Korah and his companions may well have been inspired by jealousy and ambition, we need to listen carefully to their critique of Moses and ask if it contains some elements of truth. Had the great prophet drifted too far from his community? Was this an ongoing issue?
What can we learn from the triumphs and missteps of this noble religious leader? A great deal, and perhaps as much from his moments of weakness as from his singular success.
ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.