‘Who died and made you king?’

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

In this week’s portion, a band of men led by Korach challenge Moses’ leadership of the Israelites.

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 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?’”[1]

Based on this introduction, we’re not sure what the core problem is. Moses has been the number one guy for some time now, working with his siblings to manage the crowd. He was the one who faced Pharaoh, and he was the one who brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. He also was the one who prevailed when Aaron was involved in the incident with the Golden Calf. So to ask, at this point, why he raises himself above the Lord’s congregation seems a bit misplaced. Why is Korach raising this objection now? The text does not say.

“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’”

Why did Moses fall on his face? Usually, in the Biblical context, that phrase refers to a posture of worship. So he must have turned to God at that moment for support. But this action does not seem to have brought him a sense of calm. To the contrary, he continues:

“‘Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?’”

Aha. Now we have a sense of Korach’s motive: he is seeking power. The objection raised here is not that Moses is doing a bad job or that Aaron is incompetent: rather, Korach and his band want to be the ones who do it instead.

“Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes? We will not come!’“

Their response sounds petulant. What, exactly, is their grievance here? That Moses led them out of slavery? That it is hard to live in the wilderness? It seems that their emotions have carried them away and they are simply enjoying being angry.

The text tells us that in response “Moses was much aggrieved.” His emotion is easy to understand in this context. He has spent year after year leading this group without any breaks, and this rebellion is all the thanks he gets. “And he said to the Lord, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’”

I find that last comment fascinating. He tells God the score: ‘I have done no wrong here, so please don’t cooperate with them.’ As if God was not aware, as if he had to be concerned about God’s support.

This detail provides us with an interesting insight into leadership. We all know that it can be very difficult to take on that role – it carries with it the wellbeing and welfare of the whole group. We are aware that Moses has a whole web of considerations to take into account with every decision he makes. And Aaron is acting on behalf of the entire community when he serves as High Priest.

So when a high-ranking group second-guesses his motivations it destabilizes him for a moment. He is wounded by their remarks.

And we’ve all seen disputes like this one: Moses retaliates in anger, brings the issue to a showdown and the bitter ending involves a whole lot of people disappearing from the congregation.

In that regard, I think that this week’s portion serves as a warning rather than a model.

What should have happened here? How could this dispute been better managed? If this particular conflict was chosen as a case study by the Harvard Business Review, what steps would they suggest for closing the gap in perception between Moses’ understanding of his role and Korach’s?

I can tell you what I’ve learned, based on my own experience. Before I went to rabbinical school I was the Senior Manager of Marketing Communications for a division of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California. And, in a congregational setting, I have seen a Korach-type rebellion unfold. This is what I have learned.

First, let’s start with the obvious: Korach is, of course, acting badly here.

When people act out, they do so because they are hurting. A person in a good place emotionally can bring up a difficult issue in conversation and talk through the various points rationally. Refusing to come to the table is evidence of emotional pain.

In other words: the rebellion is not about Moses or Aaron. They are probably doing a fine job at the heart of it. Their competence is not the issue.

The issue, rather, is a more complicated one relating to feelings of place and need. By that I mean: Korach is feeling invisible. He needs to have a place in the community, a way of answering the question, ‘and what is your role?’ He needs to be needed: to have a clear part in the overall process. Maybe he is aging and his kids don’t need him so much anymore. Or maybe he is young and has not yet found his place in the world. We don’t have enough of a biography to know for certain, but be we do know that Korach is feeling too small in his world.

On the other side of this dispute, we also know that Moses is not always great at delegating. We saw that in the first few months of leadership when he was given a lesson from his father-in-law Yitro. At that point in the narrative, Moses was listening to every single dispute brought before him by the Israelites. And Yitro explained to him patiently that he simply could not continue in this manner and suggested that he create a tiered court-system for hearing cases.

It would also appear, based on this narrative, that Moses is easily wounded: instead of taking the criticism in stride he forces a showdown. But a shoot-out always leaves someone dead – whether literally, as in the case of Korach who gets swallowed by the earth, or figuratively, as when a family or group of families leaves the congregation. It is infinitely better to negotiate and to listen.

What should Moses have done in this case?

He would have done well to create a tiered approach to the sacrificial service, along the lines of the court system his father-in-law suggested. He could have put Korach and his compatriots in charge of a type of sacrificial offering, so that they would also have a place in the hierarchy. Moses might not think that this arrangement is necessary, but he also has a tendency to over-estimate how much he can do himself.

In other words, had Moses displayed the best kind of leadership, he would have realized that it wasn’t all about him. It wasn’t, in fact, about him at all. The issue at hand was Korach’s place in the world. Had Moses taken himself out of the equation this event would have had a much happier ending.

It’s no his greatest moment, to be sure. But Moses is usually a better leader than that – so what is going with him? Why is he reactive rather than proactive in managing this dispute?

It is likely that Moses is feeling worn out at this point, and is suffering burnout. A good leader needs rest – which is precisely why he and Aaron should have been delegating tasks to Korach in the first place. So Korach had a legitimate concern; had Korach been a better leader himself, he would have been able to approach Moses long before the breaking-point. A well-run organization helps train future leaders so that they learn how to raise these concerns in a timely and appropriate fashion.

As this situation demonstrates, we don’t always act in our best interest, and we don’t always respond in the best way. Leaders get tired, followers get resentful, and everyone gets tired of wandering in the wilderness.

What works best, then? What can we do to make sure we stay on our good behavior, even when we’re hot, tired, and thirsty?

Rest. Take a Shabbat nap, go on vacation, get some time away.

And if a long break is not on the agenda, then at least take a small break: count to ten before responding. Count to 100 if you still don’t think you can respond without bitterness. Moses’ response of ‘falling on his face’ to pray for a moment was a good one – but he should have stalled even longer, until he could respond with equanimity.

But above all else: we should learn from this example the vital necessity of being kind. Most of our disputes are not important enough to have the earth swallow up our opponent. Have empathy for the other side, and focus on the issue rather than the person.

[1] JPS Tanakh, the book of Numbers, chapter 16.

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