How not to be like Korakh: the wisdom of humility

Do not separate yourself from the community – Hillel, Pirke Avot 2.5

This week’s Parashah records a paradigmatic moment of leadership disagreement. While most Israelites are consumed with the daily challenges of life – the tent is tilting, we have to pack for the move, where is the goat? – leadership is comparably, appropriately engaged with the logistics and messaging of moving the Israelites forward on their journey.

One of the leadership, a Levite named Korakh (a cousin of Moshe, Miriam and Aaron), declares that the rest of the leadership is irreparably compromised. He challenges Moshe in front of all the people. The people take sides. Moshe loses confidence in himself and his ability to lead.

It’s an important question for meaningful, intentional community: when should we step forward with confidence in our own, lone voice? When should we learn the humility of submitting our own ego needs to a greater cause?

Korakh’s story ends with his argument invalidated in a rather spectacular way, for which HaShem is usually charged with heavy-handedness. I want to suggest another reading, based on a comparison with a famous story from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 2.9). In it, two Rabbis who are both significant Jewish community leaders have disagreed on the proclamation of the New Moon, thereby affecting the date of Yom Kippur. 

Upon hearing that Rabbi Yehoshua had challenged his ruling, Rabban Gamliel sent a message to him: I decree against you that you must appear before me with your staff and with your money on the day on which Yom Kippur occurs according to your calculation; according to my calculation, that day is the eleventh of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur. 

*To travel with one’s staff and money on Yom Kippur is forbidden. Rabban Gamliel, who is the titular head of the Jewish people, is inviting Rabbi Yehoshua to make a choice: either defy his authority publicly (and cause a split in the Jewish people), or submit to Rabban Gamliel’s ruling.

Rabbi Akiva went and found Rabbi Yehoshua distressed that the head of the Great Sanhedrin was forcing him to desecrate the day that he maintained was Yom Kippur. In an attempt to console him, Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Yehoshua: I can learn from a [Torah] verse that everything that Rabban Gamliel did in sanctifying the month is done, i.e., it is valid. As it is stated: “These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, sacred convocations, which you shall proclaim in their season” (Leviticus 23:4). This verse indicates that whether you have proclaimed them at their proper time or whether you have declared them not at their proper time, I have only these Festivals as established by the representatives of the Jewish people. 

*The ingenious Rabbi Akiva, who can interpret things other people cannot even see, teaches his colleague that “you shall proclaim” can be understood to indicate that whenever the Jews proclaim the holy day, that is the proper time of the holy day, even if it’s demonstrably wrong, even for HaShem. 

Community cohesion is more important that being right.

Rabbi Yehoshua then came to Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas, who said to him: If we come to debate and question the rulings of the court of Rabban Gamliel, we must debate and question the rulings of every court that has stood from the days of Moses until now. As it is stated: “Then Moses went up, and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). But why were the names of these seventy Elders not specified? Rather, this comes to teach that every set of three judges that stands as a court over the Jewish people has the same status as the court of Moses. Since it is not revealed who sat on that court, apparently it is enough that they were official judges in a Jewish court. 

 *Rabbi Yehoshua is not yet sure, so he goes to another valued colleague, who makes the institutional argument: don’t undermine the authority, because if you do, you undermine the entire system.

Community cohesion is more important that the personality and behavior of the leader.

When Rabbi Yehoshua heard that even Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas maintained that they must submit to Rabban Gamliel’s decision, he took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavne to Rabban Gamliel on the day on which Yom Kippur occurred according to his own calculation. Upon seeing him, Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head. He said to him: Come in peace, my teacher and my student. You are my teacher in wisdom, as Rabbi Yehoshua was wiser than anyone else in his generation, and you are my student, as you accepted my statement, despite your disagreement.

The two leaders here demonstrate makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement which is for a greater cause than their own feelings, and which does not hold grudges, for the sake of the larger community they both serve. Thus the entire Jewish community observed Yom Kippur on the same day. A community already in turmoil after the trauma wreaked upon them by the Roman empire’s destruction of Jerusalem was not further exacerbated. 

Korakh could never see beyond his own sense of outrage: he was right, even if he caused damage to the identity formation of the Israelite people at this delicate stage. And, fittingly, he himself was literally swallowed up by the undermining of order – the chaos – that he invited.

Truly, Rabbi Yehoshua was wise. Perhaps he was thinking about Korakh. May we learn wisdom from both Gamaliel and Yehoshua, whose disagreement did not swallow up innocent people and destroy community morale; it encourages us to believe that we can learn to disagree deeply, yet love and respect each other as we wish ourselves to be loved and respected.

Shabbat Shalom

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