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I WAS CHALLENGED TO BECOME A LEADER

I WAS CHALLENGED TO BECOME A LEADER

Friday, 23 June, 2017 - 12:00 pm

On March 15, 1958, Jack Kennedy was a politician in his 40's. The opening line of one of his speeches made him a legend. Previously, his father John had been lampooned in the press as trying to use his family's money and influence to buy the election. Reaching into his pocket, Jack pulled out a telegram he said was from his dad. It said, "Dear Jack, Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary—I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."

This week's Torah portion, Korach, tells of a serious challenge to Moses’ leadership. Moses's first cousin, Korach, led 250 community leaders in a revolt: They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?"

The Talmud teaches that Korach attracted these 250 prominent Jewish men because his position was not hollow, but profound. He claimed that Moses was disrupting a sacred marriage by ripping a woman away from her husband and living with her. He was getting between the bond of a husband and wife.

Korach was referring to the bond made at Sinai. G-d and the Jewish people made an eternal marriage covenant that directly and intimately bound them up with each other. “The whole community is holy, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?" Moses was getting in the middle of this special marriage.

This was a good question, but Korach was wrong. He failed to understand the nature of Moses’ leadership—the nature of leadership espoused by Torah. He and his co-conspirators saw leadership as status, power, dominance, superiority, but Jewish leadership is not like that. It can’t be that, because Judaism is built on the premise of the non-negotiable dignity of the human person and the direct, intimate “marriage” between every Jew and G-d. A husband and wife don’t live with mediators and intermediaries; they don’t have a hierarchy to report to. Every single person is equal in G-d's eyes and every single person is directly responsible to, and in a direct relationship with, G-d. What, then, is leadership in Judaism? What was Korach’s error?

Rabban Gamliel wanted to appoint two rabbis, Elazar Chisma and Yochanan, to leadership positions. Due to their humility they declined his invitation. Rabban Gamliel asked them: “Do you suppose I am conferring ruler-ship upon you? No: I am conferring service upon you.”

A true leader is the servant of those he or she leads. That is what Moses understood, and what Korach and his fellow rebels did not. Neither priest nor prophet has personal power or authority. They are only transmitters of a word that is not their own.

Why do we need them at all?

For two reasons: One collective, and one individual.
Collectively, people need a leader like an orchestra needs a conductor or a team needs a captain. The leader structures and shapes the enterprise, coordinates, and ensures everyone is in tune.

Individually, each of us is overwhelmed and consumed by material life; our personalities and egos get in the way of accessing the spark of G-d within and the Torah’s truth. We need a selfless leader, a teacher, to guide and show us the way.

It is not a coincidence that on this Shabbat, when we read the story of Korach, we commemorate the 23rd yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared a moving personal account: As a young man, full of questions about faith, I traveled to the United States where, I had heard, there were outstanding rabbis. I met many, but I also had the privilege of meeting the greatest Jewish leader of our time, who I was told was one of the most outstanding charismatic leaders of my generation, the Rebbe.

I was utterly surprised. He was not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples. That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student from 3,000 miles away. Yet in his presence, I seemed to be the most important person in the world. He asked me about myself; he listened carefully; he challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. Perhaps that is what listening is, as a religious act. I realized then that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards. There was no grandeur in his manner; nor any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, and majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up.

A man once asked me, why do Chassidim have a picture of the Rebbe in their homes? I answered: For the same reason people hang mirrors in their homes. The Rebbe’s picture is essentially a mirror, but with one difference: When you look at a mirror, you see how you look, and when you look at the second type of mirror—you see how you CAN look. You see not what you are, but what you can become. We and our children need tons of these mirrors…

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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