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According to the latest Rasmussen Report national telephone survey of American voters, just 12% of likely U.S. voters rate the job Congress does as good or excellent. That is little different from a month ago but slightly better than the 8% approval measured a year ago. Most voters (58%) think Congress is doing a poor job.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this is so. The US Congress is dysfunctional because too many of our representatives refuse to compromise and find solutions to the nation’s many problems. They act instead according to the laws of the jungle and abide by the philosophy that ends justify means, might makes right, cynicism trumps hope, and power is an ultimate “good.”

There are, of course, many decent servant-leaders in Washington, D.C. and around the country who, despite formidable obstacles, seek to do well and work diligently on behalf of the common good.

This week’s Torah portion Korach considers both kinds of leaders as it tells the story of a major rebellion led by Korach and 250 Israelite leaders against Moses and Aaron.

Korach was Moses’ and Aaron’s first cousin (Exodus 6:18-21), a member of the priestly class and part of the ruling elite. The leaders around him are described as “Princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) The Talmud says of them “that they had a name recognized in the whole world.” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a). These were not outside agitators or riff-raff. They were the ruling establishment.

Despite his elevated status, however, Korach and his close familial relationship with the Prophet Moses and High Priest Aaron, Korach wasn’t at all satisfied with his station. He challenged Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood, and his cohorts Dathan and Abiram questioned Moses’ leadership. Korach’s goal was to unseat the divinely chosen leaders, and he appealed to the people to overthrow them using religious language and espousing the importance of rotating leaders in office, all of whom he said were equally worthy.

“And they assembled themselves together against Moses and … Aaron, and said, ‘You [Moses and Aaron] take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them.’”

In actuality, tradition says of Korach that he and his minions weren’t “democrats” (small “d”) at all; they were demagogues who manipulated and incited the masses for their narrow self-interests.

Rabbi Moshe Weiler, the founder of liberal Judaism in South Africa, has written:“Theirs [i.e. Korach and his cohorts] was the pursuit of kavod, honor and power, in the guise of sanctity and love of the masses.”

Onkolos (2nd century C.E.), in his Aramaic translation of the two opening words of the portion, Vayikach Korach (“And Korach took”) wrote It’peleg Korach (“And Korach separated himself”), suggesting that he didn’t consider himself to be one with the people nor was he interested in serving their interests.

Korach sought power for power’s sake and he ignited a controversy based on ignoble motivations and nefarious goals leading to the devastation of the community. In the end, the earth swallowed Korach and his rebel comrades alive and sent them to Sheol in a spectacular inferno. (Numbers 16:31-35)

Korach’s eish ha-mach’loket (“fire of controversy”) became an eish o-che-lah (“a devouring fire”) that augured doom.

“The Sayings of the Sages” (5:21) reflects upon Korach’s rebellion and distinguishes between two very different kinds of controversy. The first is healthy and useful, pursued for the sake of heaven (l’shem sha-ma-yim) that brings about blessing and a stronger community. The second is a pernicious fight not based on lasting values that brings about disunity and destruction. Hillel and Shammai (1st century BCE) embodied the former, and Korach and his legions the latter.

Korach was essentially a cynic. Moses was the opposite, the humble servant-leader.

Who are we? Do we resonate with the voice of Korach or the spirit of Moses?

Who are our leaders? Are they interested only in power or in the common good?

Rabbi Rachel Cowan opines that though every individual may, indeed, aspire to be like Moses, Korach lives within our hearts too.

In thinking about ourselves and our leaders, the words of Maimonides remind us of the importance of pursuing higher virtue: “The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7)

Upon reading this my brother once asked me, “Do you know anyone in public service who measures up to this high standard?”

I responded, “Not quite – but every public servant ought to aspire to do so.”

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