How to Be a Good Leader ~ Korah ~ 5 Tammuz 5780 / 27 June 2020
Jun 27th 2020

An old man met a young man who asked:

“Do you remember me?”

The older man said no. 

The young man told the older man that he had been his student.

The teacher asked:

“How do you spend your days?”

The young man answered:

“Well, I became a teacher. In fact, I became a teacher because you inspired me to be like you.”

The older man, curious, asked the young man at what time he decided to become a teacher. 

The younger man shared with him the following story:

“One day, a friend of mine, also a student, came in with a nice new watch, and I decided I wanted it and I stole it, I took it out of his pocket.

Shortly after, my friend noticed the watch was missing and immediately complained to our teacher, who was you.

 This is what you said to the class:

‘This student's watch was stolen during classes today. Whoever stole it, please return it.’

I didn't give it back because I didn't want to. 

Then you closed the door and told us all to get up and you were going to search our pockets one by one until the watch was found. But you told us to close our eyes, because you would only look for his watch if we all had our eyes closed.

So we did, and you went from pocket to pocket, and when you went through my pocket, you found the watch and took it. You kept searching everyone's pockets, and when you were done you said

‘Open your eyes. We have the watch.’

You never shared who stole the watch. 

That day you saved my dignity forever. It was the most shameful day of my life.

While you didn’t say anything, or scold me or take me aside to give me a moral lesson, I received your message clearly.

Thanks to you, I understood what a real teacher and leader needs to do. 

Do you remember this at all?”

This is how the teacher replied to him:

“I remember the day of the stolen watch, when I looked in everyone’s pocket, but I didn't remember it was you, because I also closed my eyes while looking.”

My friends, this is leadership.

The teacher did not embarrass the student. Quite the opposite, the teacher gave the student an opportunity to leave with his dignity intact. He did not comment on or ruin the student’s character.

When I first read this story, it was not attributed to a Jewish source. But I was not surprised when I found a YouTube video of a fervently Orthodox man with a long beard and a fur hat sharing the same story, albeit with a Yiddish lilt. And ‘teacher’ was substituted for ‘rebbe’. 

At the same time, I am not really surprised that this story was appropriated as a Jewish tale. We value humility. 

 In Genesis, Abraham famously says “I am but dust and ashes.” And Moses, a few weeks ago, in Numbers 12, was described as the most humble man, “more so than any other person on the earth.”

On that verse, the rabbis in the Midrash Tanhuma state: “Moses, our teacher, merited receiving the Torah, for the soul of the Torah is humility.”

Centuries later, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), also known as the Netziv, explained that the meaning of humility is that Moshe paid no attention to his honour. This was not because he felt lowly and did not realize that such a lack of respect and pain was not worthy of him. Rather, it was because he conducted himself without concern for honour.

He just did what he needed to do. 

And that is why each year, when we get to the story of Korah, I am so stunned at Korah’s behaviour. 

Moses was certainly not perfect. None of us are. We all miss the mark every now and then. Just this week, I accidentally sent 6000 people an email with the word “test” on it.

But Moses had a real sense of doing what God wanted him to do, even when we know he didn’t really want to do it at first. 

For the most part, he did an okay job. The people got out of Egypt, and if it were not for Amalek and a few questionable characters, they would have taken a more direct route to the Promised Land. 

But Korah? Let’s review his grievance:

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?’”

There are so many issues here. 

First of all, Korah and his band of misfits did not complain against God, they gathered against Moshe and Aaron. 

Just like us, that entire community was able to choose to lead holy lives, and some people had sacred duties to perform.

Also, Korah was from the family of Leviim, and they were doing the most holy work. 

And let’s throw in the most obvious comment. Moses and Aaron did not choose to be in the position they were in. God chose Moses at the Burning Bush. Moses tried to get out of it, highlighting his speech impediment, but God forced him or lured him into the job, and then added Aaron to the team.

So really, nothing Korah said was true.

Is it obvious I am not a fan of the guy? 

Korah set out to embarrass Moses. He engaged in slander. The way he spoke has always pressed my buttons. 

Recently I came across a piece by Rebbe Nachman that could explain why Korah makes me so uncomfortable. 

In Likutei Moharan, he writes:

“Know! People’s slander undermines and blemishes humility. Due to the slander that people speak, due to this blemish, it is impossible for the tzaddikim to be humble. This is because the blemish of slander separates humility from wisdom, and as a result humility is blemished, so that it is impossible to be humble.”

Not only did Korah slander Moshe and undermine his authority, he also stole part of his humility away from him.

Korah could have said “this leadership structure stinks.” Instead, he commented on members of the leadership team.

When we first meet Moses, he is a simple shepherd. He never evolves into an egomaniac. He does his job, a job he was divinely instructed to do. 

Korah fundamentally misunderstood leadership.

Moshe believed in God and followed God. 

Korah believed in himself above all others and he humiliated Moshe in front of 250 people. 

This is why Mishna Avot teaches:

“Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Korah did not set out to correct. 

He set out to humiliate.

Korah’s claim was not made in good faith. There was no value to Korah‘s challenge, nor in Korah himself.

The leadership shown by the teacher in the story I shared a few moments ago is a form of leadership that I admire and I hope to emulate. 

Korah is just a bad apple. 

We are living in an era with haves and have-nots, people who are powerful and powerless. People are raising their voices and raising them loud. 

Whether you engage in conversation, dialogue, communication, discourse or even argumentation, please be like Moses and be like the teacher from our story.

Don’t be like Korah.

After all, he gets consumed by fire at the end of the story. 

We have enough plagues right now. 

Shabbat shalom.