Fred A. Bernstein

Commentary on Korach

Lessons on leadership from the Torah

Published in Synagogue, June 16, 2018

The first time I gave a d'var torah at Kolot Chayeinu, it was because Ellen Lippmann asked me to. Well, she didn't really ask me. To use Ellen's wonderful expression, I was volun-told. Naturally, I resisted. What do I know about Torah, I pleaded. I'll have nothing interesting to say. Ellen persuaded me that I could find something meaningful in the parsha, and she worked with me to make that happen. Not only did I give the d'var torah, but I found the experience deeply rewarding.

This time, I actually volunteered. I wanted to do another d'var torah before Ellen retired. So I found myself confronting this week's bloody, bloody parsha. It's about the Korach Rebellion, an uprising against Moses near Mount Sinai. Korach, a Levite, was angry that Moses's brother, Aaron, had been made High Priest. He gathered together other disaffected Israelites -- including the Reubenites Datan and Aviram, who were mad that Aaron hadn't appointed them to positions of power, and 250 "princes of the congregation," who had grievances of their own. Essentially, Korach formed a coalition of everybody who resented Moses, and persuaded them to act in ways that weren't really in their interests. It's a story of ambition, jealousy and greed, which sometimes trump rational decision-making.

Moses wasn't about to be defeated. He told his flock that if Korach and his followers "died a natural death, then God has not sent me. But if God makes the earth swallow them with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave -- then you will know," Moses said, "that I am the true leader."

And it happened. The ground beneath Korach and his followers split open, and the earth swallowed them up. And there was other carnage, including a plague -- altogether, commentators tell us, 14,000 people died to keep Moses in power.

We can learn about bad leadership from Korach, and, also, sadly from Moses, who used violence -- whether divinely authorized or not -- to get his way.

But where can we learn about good leadership?

As Britain's former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, explained in his commentary on this Torah portion, there are two very different aspects of leadership. One is power; the other, influence.

To explain the difference, Sacks proposed a simple thought experiment. Imagine you have total power, and then you decide to share it with nine others. You now have one-tenth of the power you had before. Imagine, by contrast, that you have a certain measure of influence, and you share that with nine others, mentoring them to become influencers. Now you have ten times as much influence as you had at the beginning. With power, the more you share, the less you have. With influence, the more you share, the more you have.

Power operates by division, influence by multiplication.

My own description of the difference between power and influence is this: Power is saying, as Moses did, if you don't follow my commands, bad things are going to happen. Influence is saying, if you follow my advice, good things may happen, and if they do, you might want to spread the word around.

I know what motivated Moses to choose power: God, he believed, told him to. But I began wondering what motivated Korach to oppose Moses, given the odds against him. One clue comes from the Talmudic scholars, who tell us Korach was a very wealthy man. So wealthy, we are told, that it took 300 mules to carry the keys -- just the keys -- to his treasury.

And I am trying to picture what it meant to be that wealthy in a tribe of people camped out in the desert, a trip that would drag on for at least another 40 years. Could Korach have hired a private camel and made the trip in 30 years? Or 20? I don't think so. (Sure, he could have bought a place at the head of the caravan but -- like people buying a seat in business class today.)

If he couldn't make the trip shorter, could he have made it more comfortable? I imagine he could have hired a chef to cook for him, but the chef would have been limited to the same few basic ingredients available in Sinai. The food would have been boring, despite his wealth. Indeed, it's hard to picture, given the limited resources in the desert, how his life could have been very different from anyone else's.

In fact, I'm thinking that part of what put Korach in a foul mood is that he had wealth, but in the desert, it couldn't buy him anything.

Cut to the 21st century. There are a lot of Korachs in our society. Rich people who feel entitled and who, somehow, are angry that they don't have even more money and more stuff. More yachts, more cars, more private planes -- yes, all the things that spew carbon into the atmosphere.

And they are about to get even angrier. Because money won't help them once climate change turns much of the world into Sinai. In the not-too-distant future, as some parts of the planet parch, and others flood, money, I predict, will become useless, as it must have been for Korach.

And yet the 1% seem hell-bent on making that bleak future arrive as soon as possible. All around us, the rich are doing everything in their power -- power, not influence -- to become even richer. One of the ways they do that is by pushing to overturn regulations, and scuttle treaties, that might help stave off climate change. It's hard to imagine anything more self-defeating.

In the Torah, after Korach was vanquished, Moses led his people to the promised land, and millions of Jews lived happily ever after. Right?

Today, things are very different. The crises we face are existential. But our leaders are focused, like the leaders in the parsha, on petty grievances, and on ego. We need leaders who know the difference between power and influence.

I have learned a lot about leadership from Ellen. She has led this tribe for 25 years, and, unlike Korach, she never expected anyone to die for her. And, unlike Moses, she has never justified a decision by saying, "Because God told me to." She explained her decisions, patiently. Including her decison to support for Kolot's divestment from Chase, in light of the bank's contributions to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the fossil fuel industry. To again quote Rabbi Sacks, "Much of Judaism is an extended essay on the supremacy of prophets over kings, of teaching rather than coercion."

Ellen has helped write that extended essay, by choosing influence, not power. And at Kolot, as we transition from one leader to another, that essay is still being written.