Where does real authority and greatness come from?


It has been said that “rank has its privilege.” However, for those who have accepted the yoke of authority and leadership, there are also challenges associated with a higher rank. Nowhere is this truer than in the book of Bemidbar (Numbers) which began three weeks ago. Though there are challenges to the authority of God, Moses and Aaron in the book of Shemot (Exodus), there are many more in the fourth book of the Torah in which is found this week’s parashah, Korah. The Children of Israel have proven themselves to be contentious and distrustful. Their complaints and contrariness have tested the patience of even God, let alone Moses and Aaron.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses’s and Aaron’s authority receive a direct challenge from the parashah’s title character, Korah, and two others, Datan and Aviram. Korah is a Levite like Moses and Aaron and so is concerned that Aaron, Moses’ brother, has been invested with the responsibility and the authority of the priesthood above the other members of the tribe of Levi. If all the Levites are considered special, then why is Aaron’s family considered more special? In the same vein, Datan and Aviram are leaders from the tribe of Reuven, named for the first born of Jacob/Israel and therefore, according to the law of primogeniture, should be the leaders of the entire people, just as the first born is the leader of the family. Why, then, is Moses, a Levite, the leader of the people of Israel?

There are a number of possible issues attendant to these challenges. One, of course, is that of the difference between inherited and earned authority. Another is the principle of democratic opportunity to reach positions of authority. Lastly, there may also be an issue of ego involvement and a perception that “rank has its privilege” without consideration of the burden of rank and the responsibilities attendant to the exercise of authority. This last issue is probably the one operant in this instance.

The rabbis of the Mishnah recognized that the challenge presented by Korah was not one concerned with the improvement of the people of Israel, rather it was mostly concerned with his own aggrandizement. Therefore, we find in Pirkei Avot (the Chapters of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah in which are contained pithy sayings about all aspects of life) the following pronouncement:

“Every controversy which is for the Name of Heaven will in the end be established. And every one which is not for the Name of Heaven will not in the end be established. What controversy is that which is for the sake of Heaven? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And that which is not for the sake of Heaven? This is the controversy of Korah and all his company.” (5:20)

There is no absolute prohibition in Judaism regarding challenging those in authority. The Mishnah and much more so the Gemara reflects the debates that spanned generations during the formative periods of rabbinic Judaism. Even the Torah, itself, which the rabbis of old believed was revealed to Moses by God, was open to interpretation, and the rabbis indicated that there were seventy such interpretations, a number which is used as a metaphor for very many. So long as one argues in order to better understand what it is that God wants people to do, then that argument has the Divine hechsher (imprimatur or approval). However, if one debates only to show up the other or to aggrandize oneself in one’s own or others’ eyes, then that is not countenanced. Thus it is that the heated debates which took place between the schools of Hillel and Shammai were considered for the sake of Heaven, while the challenges presented by Korah, Datan and Aviram were not.

The first-century sage, Hillel, is quoted often in Pirkei Avot. One of the dicta which shed light on this week’s Torah portion is the following.

“Whoso makes great his name loses his name, and whoso adds not makes to cease, and he who does not learn deserves killing, and one who serves himself with the crown passes away.” (1:13)

The rebellion led by Korah, Datan and Aviram against Moses and Aaron was an attempt to make their names greater than the sage leaders of the people, Moses, who is called “our rabbi,” and Aaron, who is described as one who “pursues peace.” On the other hand, these great leaders never sought to make themselves great. On the contrary, Moses sought to convince God that he was not the man for the job when God appeared to him in the burning bush in Midian. Greatness does not always come to the ambitious and to those who seek fame and fortune. It often comes to those who quietly accomplish all that is assigned to them, who humbly live up to their potential and more. Most of the time, people are able to see through the smoke and mirrors of people such as Korah, Datan and Aviram, as was clear when they were challenged to prove their claims to leadership with a test of incense pans. The one or ones whose incense spontaneously burned was the one with Divine authority behind him or them. Of course, only Aaron’s incense burned. The other pans burned in the hands of those who sought to make themselves great.

Real authority is earned. It is not inherited; it is not forced upon people; it is not the result of promoting oneself. Real authority is the result of hard work and achievement, of character and of selfless dedication. Real authority is responsive and responsible and can withstand even the stiffest of challenges. Real authority comes out of humility rather than hubris. Real authority comes not from an “idol” but from a real, flesh-and-blood human being, whose actions always speak far louder than his/her words.

Shabbat Shalom!