Thursday, June 19, 2014

Give or Take?- Using the Torah to Choose the Right Kind of Leaders

We live in a time when, sadly, we are no longer surprised to see those who lead religious institutions, yeshivahs and communities in the news for unethical behavior. While actions done to raise money to help others can at least be somewhat explained away, misusing positions of leadership for personal gain can not. In 2008, Chaim Saiman, a law professor at Villanova, wrote an article for the Forward about the Madoff scandal and its religious implications for Yeshiva University. Taking that a step further, I'd like to look at the Torah's expectations for leaders, by dealing with a number of questions on this weeks parsha.

Parshas Korach tells the story of how a large group of men, theoretically led by Korach, attempted to gain positions of leadership and influence within Bnei Yisrael. It begins with the passuk

וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח בֶּן־יִצְהָר בֶּן־קְהָת בֶּן־לֵוִי וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב וְאוֹן בֶּן־פֶּלֶת בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן

All commentators ask the same question. The pasuk begins with the word וַיִּקַּח, which means "And he took", without saying what exactly was taken. Furthermore, it is written in the singular despite ostensibly talking about more than 200 men.

Furthermore, in pasuk טו when Moshe pleads with God not to accept Korach's offering he says
 וַיִּחַר לְמֹשֶׁה מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־יְהֹוָה אַל־תֵּפֶן אֶל־מִנְחָתָם לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת־אַחַד מֵהֶם

"I have not taken a single donkey from any of them and not done badly to them". Why does Moshe feel the need to justify himself? Even stranger is the fact that this statement seems to be the basis for the choice of the haftarah of the parsha.

As Shmuel HaNavi, who has been the leader of Bnei Yisrael, is coming to the end of his life, he is asked by the people to appoint a king to rule over them. As he goes to annoint Shaul, Shmuel gives a valedictory address. At the beginning he says:

הִנְנִי עֲנוּ בִי נֶגֶד ה' וְנֶגֶד מְשִׁיחוֹ אֶת ־שׁוֹר ׀ מִי לָקַחְתִּי וַחֲמוֹר מִי לָקַחְתִּי וְאֶת־מִי עָשַׁקְתִּי אֶת ־מִי רַצּוֹתִי וּמִיַּד־ מִי לָקַחְתִּי כֹפֶר וְאַעְלִים עֵינַי בּוֹ וְאָשִׁיב לָכֶם

Echoing Moshe's words, Shmuel asks the people to confirm that he has taken nothing from them. What are Chazal trying to emphasize?

Finally, at the end of the parsha, the Matnos Kehuna V' Leviyah, the gifts that the Kohanim and Leviyim receive from Bnei Yisrael, are listed. Going on the assumption that halachos that are introduced after a narrative episode have a thematic connection, what do these gifts have to do with the story of Korach and his co-conspirators?

Korach saw leadership as a way of getting things. He assumed that a leader would be in position to accrue wealth, comfort and luxury for himself. He wanted to have such a position for himself. He, along with his group wanted to rule in order to be able to take for themselves וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח. Even as they came together to complain, each one wanted power for his own benefit and thus וַיִּקַּח is written in the singular.

Moshe and Shmuel, in contradistinction to Korach and his men, recognized that to be a true leader was to be a selfless giver, with the goal of helping the flock rather than themselves. They sacrificed comfort, family and more all for Bnei Yisrael. In return, they took nothing, not even a donkey.

At the end of the parsha, in discussing the various gifts, the Kohanim and Leviyim are given the task of guarding the mishkan to keep Bnei Yisrael safe. In return, they are given certain gifts. At first, this seems to suggest that serving God leads to personal gain. HaShem stresses

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל־אַהֲרֹן בְּאַרְצָם לֹא תִנְחָל וְחֵלֶק לֹא־יִהְיֶה לְךָ בְּתוֹכָם אֲנִי חֶלְקְךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

"You will not receive a portion of land in Israel. I, Hashem, am your portion". Land was the primary way of accruing wealth in an agrarian society. The gifts are given to the Kohanim and Leviyim for sustenance. Their job is to serve, not to accrue gain for themselves. HaShem, who is the ultimate giver, the נתן התורה is their inheritance, and thus, their role model.

A leader's goal must be to help those who leads, not himself. To give to others, and not to take for himself. Perhaps it is time to reasess our goals in choosing leaders in our community.

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