Friday, June 22, 2012

Burdens of Leadership - Parashat Korach - June 22, 2012

    In the last several years, we have witnessed a variety of movements calling for drastic change in an organization or a nation.  The Presbyterian Church USA will soon be considering resolutions that would support a boycott of Israel.  A local Presbyterian minister came to meet with me because he will be on a committee that will consider these proposals.   Our discussion covered a lot of ground, much of it hovering around a centrist position, one that admits the many complexities of the Arab Israeli conflict.    We have seen that the Arab Spring in Egypt has likely not yielded the desired results, given that the military is attempting to assert power over Egypt regardless of the outcome of elections. The Occupy movement has stirred the conscience of our country, but we are uncertain as to how it will affect the way we approach finances in the long-term on an individual, national or international level.  Finally, we are in the midst of yet another presidential election campaign, where incumbent and challenger are pitted against each other in a battle for framing the issues and suggesting solutions that might work.  This year, as in past campaigns, citizens are looking back to the years before the previous presidential election and wondering how decisions made by leaders then have affected the state of our nation today. 
    Leadership is difficult, challenging, and, very often, lonely.   Some people who are dissatisfied with their leaders may have legitimate criticisms based on extensive knowledge of their current situation.   Others may not see the whole picture.  They may, instead, be focused primarily on what they believe they deserve in terms of communal or political position and status.   In the Torah reading for this week, KORACH, there are, at least, two rebellions against Moses and Aaron and their leadership. Korach was likely a cousin to Moses and Aaron who came from a priestly family but was not eligible to be among the high priests.  He claimed that, if it was true that all the Israelites were holy, then no one, not even the high priests, should be considered holier than anyone else.  Korach viewed the leadership of Aaron and Moses with a feeling of jealousy, seeking for himself their power, without acknowledging the sense of responsibility they had taken upon themselves and the difficulties involved in leading the people.   Dathan and Abiram were instigators of unrest based in their own dissatisfaction with the plight of the people following their flight to freedom.  They thought that being descendants of Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, gave them the right to be leaders over Moses and Aaron.  Furthermore, they saw the state of the Israelites in the wilderness as less preferable to their former life of slavery in Egypt. In their complaint, they called Egypt  “a land flowing with milk and honey,” using the very phrase that described the lush land of Canaan that they would eventually enter. The Torah recounts that both of these rebellions, which saw leadership as a function only of status and not of inspiration, met their demise at the hand of God.
     We may be understandably uncomfortable with the specter of anyone being crushed by divine power.  These tales of rebellion must be in the Torah for a reason, so that we can derive some lesson on a metaphorical level or gain some insight on leadership and community life.  So what can we learn from this portion?   One way of viewing the disposition of the rebel leaders, Korach, Dathan and Abiram, is to note how they undermined their own cause through their envy, anger and pessimism.  They had disqualified themselves from instilling any sense of hope and confidence among their people.   They saw the plight of the moment, blamed it on their leaders, and tried to convince the people that they could do better, without offering anything more than demagoguery and an utter rejection of the status quo.  They weren’t willing to admit that the current leadership could, in any way, take them along a path towards a better life and welcome change.   They hadn’t moved from the mindset of slavery, where their needs were met with a great measure of disrespect and cruelty. They were not yet free people who could see their new status as an opportunity.  According to the Torah, one reason that the Israelites wandered for so long was that they needed a change in attitude that could only be nurtured over a period of years with patience and perseverance.  The Israelites had to let go of their past before they could adopt a positive outlook toward the tasks of community-building that awaited them in the decades to come.
    True leadership requires an ability to adapt and change, encouraging people to think in new ways and to consider untried ideas and approaches to the challenges before them. Torah commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz saw Korach’s assertion about the holiness of the Israelites to mean that “we have achieved our goal of being a holy people and nothing more need be demanded of us” to maintain that sanctity. It was as if he was saying, and even boasting, “I am already holy and don’t need to change.” Yet, what the Torah actually says is “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” Holiness is about becoming, not being.  It is a goal, not a present state. Leaders and people like Korach, Dathan and Abiram think they have nothing to learn from anyone or any new experience. Leaders and people like Moses and Aaron see their own imperfections, lament the need to stand firm in the face of overwhelming opposition, and are willing to learn something new to move along the road towards greater effectiveness and even holiness.  It is through learning from what we have done wrong and realizing what we do right and well that we become a KAHAL KADOSH, a holy community. 
    I went to meet with Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima on Wednesday as part of a delegation from CAFé, Communities in Action and Faith.  We sat for nearly two hours discussing concerns about our city and state, focusing first on how to get more people involved in the political process by voting in elections and by staying engaged with the work that needs to be done to improve our community.  It was a relaxed and productive conversation.  Mayor Miyagishima said that he is fortunate to have an effective city council working in partnership with him.  He remarked that some people have told him that the position of mayor is mostly one of figurehead status.   His response to that opinion is that any position of leadership is what  you make of it.  A leader can choose how much, or how little, he or she wants to accomplish.   The same goes with being a member of a group or community.   There are many ways in which we can positively contribute our voices, our wisdom and our energy to bring about productive change and a renewed sense of unity and hope.  We can add our own spirit and insight as congregants of Temple Beth-El and as and citizens of a city, state and nation. May our efforts to move forward towards a better life be borne out of a sense of renewal and mutual respect and concern that will shape a future filled with promise! 

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