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The problem of Korach is a tricky one. Although we do recognize the honesty, wisdom, self-sacrifice, dedication, and other outstanding character traits that make Moshe and his brother Aharon fit and proper leaders, our modern commitment to democracy, equality, and egalitarianism kind of wants us to agree with Korach and his rebellion against Moshe and Aharon. It really does seem a bit unfair, and nepotistic, that the leadership roles keep going to the brothers and their family. It is true, as Korach says, that “the entire nation is holy”, they did all stand together at Sinai, God did speak to all of them (although certainly much more to Moshe). Could an attempt not have been made to be a bit more diverse, and inclusive, when handing out the top jobs? How are we to understand what is so horribly wrong with Korach and his band of rebels?
There is an interesting linguistic quirk at the start of our parsha which may give us some help. The parsha begins ויקח קרח – “And Korach took”. If you keep reading, you will notice that the text never tells us what he took. The various commentators come up with some ideas – he took others to follow him, he took himself to an adversarial position vis a vis the rest of the nation, he took his own bad advice, etc. - but the simple reading remains difficult – what exactly did Korach take?
I would like to suggest that the phrase “And Korach took” is meant to be descriptive not of an act, but of an attitude. Korach’s motivation here is that of a taker, a person who wants something for himself, and not that of someone who wants to give, to help, to serve. Although Korach may ask some interesting questions about equality and fairness, at the end of the day, this opening “And Korach took” tells us all we need to know about his real goals and motivations: he is selfish, always “taking”. Although we certainly are familiar with leaders who are like that – venal, selfish, out for their own good (in fact, this is what classic “leadership”, in the form of kings and other “nobles” was obviously all about, as the prophet Samuel so eloquently argues in Samuel 1,8 – all they do, their raison d’etre, is to take), real leadership is about giving, serving, making things better for others. This is why Korach’s rebellion is so corrupt. All that jazz about fairness, and the whole nation being holy, and deserving, were just so many talking points. Korach was not interested in giving anything to the people – not equality, not a more democratic leadership, and certainly not a more egalitarian society: it was all about what he could take for himself.
On the other hand, there is a fascinating lesson about real leadership to be learned by looking at the event that is one of the triggers for Korach’s rebellion: Aharon’s investiture as high priest. In Leviticus, chapter 8, Moshe officially coronated his brother as the High Priest. In this section, we read that Moshe is told by God to “take Aharon , and his sons with him, and the priestly garments, and the oil of anointing and an ox for a sin offering and two rams and a basket of matzot”. The ceremony begins with Moshe “taking” all these things. Then we are told that Moshe assembles the nations, informs them of God’s choice of Aharon and his sons to be priests and then starts to “give” – he places upon them the priestly garments, and anoints them with the oil, and brings them the animals to be sacrificed.
The interesting thing here is the use of the words לקח and נתן - ‘take’ and ‘give’ - in various forms. Moshe takes Aharon and his sons and the sacrificial animals, the oil, the blood of the sacrifices, and “gives” or places, the various garments on the priests. Although this giving and taking is ceremonial, I think the fact that this dedicatory event has Moshe assembling objects – “taking” them – and then giving them to the priests and the Tabernacle is symbolic of his role as leader. While Korach is summed up with the words ויקח קרח - “And Korach took”, when Moshe officiates at the priests’ investiture ceremony, which is the consolidation of his and his brother’s power, whatever he takes, he then gives. The word ויתן appears four times in this section, along with other similar words, such as “offer” or “place”. The choice of Aharon as high priest, and of his sons as priests, is not about nepotism, about taking; it is about giving.
This is the litmus test for real leadership. Is the guy who wants to be in charge taking things, enriching himself, consolidating his or her power, or is his or her leadership about helping others, serving others, giving to others? I can think of a few countries and communities whose citizens would benefit greatly by running this test on their leadership.