What makes a great leader? What makes a leader legitimate? These are questions we grapple with daily as our political life becomes more fractured and confrontational.
So-called populism is on the rise, and its leaders and its members question the foundations of democratic government. These governments, they argue, do not truly reflect the will of the people. Only the populist leaders do.
Moses confronts the same challenge in this week’s Torah portion, when he is confronted by Korach over who is the legitimate leader of the Israelites. “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?” (Numbers 16:3-4) This would seem to be a reasonable question, for all of Israel is holy.
In the midrash (the stories our Sages of blessed memory tell about the Torah text) they write that Korach went around the camp telling lies about Moses’ actions and turning the Israelites against Moses.
Further, Moses did not seek to be the leader of the Israelites, God appointed him… against his will. Moses’ model of leadership is one of humility and service. Korach’s model is one of lust for power and fulfillment of ego.
As we celebrated Independence Day on Thursday, this week’s Torah portion seems particularly appropriate. It teaches us to look at our leaders’ motivation and their character, not just their words, when we evaluate whether they are worthy of leadership.