Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


The book of Numbers I believe is misnamed in English.  I know that there are lots of numbers in the book.  We count the population, gifts to the Mishkan, offerings in the Mishkan, and the list goes on.  We obsess over numbers like The Count.  However, I think that this English name comes from the rabbinic title for the book which is Sefer HaPikudim, because the instruction to do the census is va'yafked.  This word could be translated as count or number, but is better rendered as assign, as in give out assignments or roles.  In Modern Hebrew a tafkid is a job or purpose.  I prefer this label because the major topic of this volume of Torah is really leadership, and one of the major responsibilities of a leader is to give out assignments and give everyone a sense of purpose.  The first nineteen chapters of the book discuss the problems of and challenges to his leadership encountered by Moshe during the first year and a half of the wandering.  The last half of the book, which takes place thirty-eight years later, is mostly about the transition of power from the generation of the exodus to those who will conquer the land.  This week's parsha presents the greatest single challenge to the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, when Korach and the heads of the Reuvain tribe claim that they should be in charge because of their primacy of birth over Moshe and Aharon.  It also teaches us many lessons about leadership. 

Probably the most famous attempt to describe the challenge of Korach and his minions is in the Midrash.  There it states that the rebels came to Moshe wearing garments woven entirely of T'chelet, the blue dye which colors one of the four strings in each corner of a Tallit.  They claimed that the strings of such a garment didn't need T'chelet because if one string fulfills the need, a whole garment must do it even better.  The symbolism is very sharp.  We need a leader when the people don't each display leadership qualities, but when everyone is holy we don't require any other leadership.  Now we understand Korach's question:  Why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of God (Numbers 16:3)?  In other words Moshe and Aharon are imposing an unneeded and unwanted leadership upon Israel.  We assume that Korach would later step into the power vacuum that this rebellion would create.  But even the logic of the complaint is unwarranted.  Leadership is more than functional within Judaism; it is intrinsic to community.  Communities always require inspiration and direction provided by brilliant leaders, even when the people are all holy.  Without that guidance and motivation the group soon stops being a cohesive community.

Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) in his introduction to this week's Torah reading reminds us of another aspect of leadership.  As is his wont Rabbeinu Bechaye begins by quoting a verse from the book of Proverbs:  Whoever eagerly seeks good searches for good will, but whoever looks for evil finds it.  He that trusts in his wealth will fall, and the righteous ones will bud like leaves (11:27-28).  The good rabbi explains that King Solomon is warning us that we should always endeavor to provide the best for others, and never try to hurt or harm another.  Ultimately there is a direct relationship between our efforts on behalf of others and our own success.  Then Rabbeinu Bechaye suggests that (based upon an earlier comment by Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona, d. 1263) the eager seeking on behalf of others means beseeching God in prayer.  He actually goes so far as to say that one who refrains from praying for another has sinned.  This idea brings us to the principles in our parsha.  The one who always prays for the salvation of Israel is, of course, Moshe.  Who just last week went to bat for the Jews after the sin of the spies in spite of the fact that part of that rebellion was against him personally.  Righteous leadership requires concern for the people even when they are a pain in various body parts, and always seeks their best interest no matter the consequences for the leader.

The Midrash on the verse in Proverbs directly connects the second verse to this week's story.  The one who relies on his wealth for success in life is Korach, who according to tradition was fabulously wealthy, the Jewish Croesus.  This image of great riches becomes manifest to the whole community when he and all his possessions are swallowed by the earth, wealth doesn't prevent disaster.  The second half of verse twenty-eight also seems to directly reference our parsha with the metaphor of budding leaves, because of the story of Aharon's staff blossoming during the test of the tribal chiefs (17:21-24).  The purpose of wealth and power is to provide for others.  Wealth not dedicated to the good of everyone is like money being thrown down a pit.  On the other hand when someone displays righteousness in their employment of talent and assets, we all bask in the beauty which flowers before our eyes.

So, the complaint of Korach and his horde was basically:  Why are you the leader instead of me?  That kind of criticism can just be ignored, because it is so egocentric.  What is a legitimate grievance?  Can't you do more to help others?  The community is suffering and you don't seem to do anything about it.  In other words the legitimate objection to a leader isn't about the fact that he's a leader, it's about the lack of service to those being led.

According to Rabbi Soloveitchik the charismatic or Divinely inspired personality is not about entitlement and honor; it is an eternal duty to the community.  He refers to this phenomenon as the theo-political personality who is dedicated to forging a covenantal bond between God and the people.  Korach et al didn't get it.  But Moshe did, and he devoted his life to the service of the people and to the building of a society based upon morality and ethics.  That's awesome leadership.                

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