The Quest of a True Leader: Hope and Renewal


A flower growing in a crack in the road

This week’s Torah portion, Korachreminds us that the bitter partisanship and political infighting that typify the contemporary political scene are as old as the Bible itself.

We read how Korach — who clearly longed for Moses’s job — lambasted Moses for elevating himself above the rank and file. Pushing back hard, Moses impugned his challenger’s motives by suggesting that what Korach, a Levite, really wanted was more power! Moses surmised that Korach was angling to become one of the high priests — a position of greater privilege and authority (Numbers 16:10).

Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s political allies, also challenge Moses’s authority by refusing to meet with him. “We will not come!” They defy Moses and accuse him of exploiting “those [who are your] subordinates” (Numbers 16:12-14).

The history of American politics is littered with recapitulations on this same theme. From the beginning of the republic, the competence and rectitude of governmental leaders have been impugned by their opponents. The party of James Madison accused President John Adams of being “partial to the opulent.” The Federalists rejoined by referring to their opponents as a “horrible sink of treason” and an “odious conclave of tumult” (Bruce S. Thornton, Democracy’s Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama [Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014), p. 90.

Even the leadership skill of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s most venerable presidents, has been called into question. While in office, Lincoln’s opponents accused him of being, among other things, an imperialist, a materialist, and an overall administrative incompetent (See John McKee Barr, Loathing Lincoln; An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present [Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2014]). Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the URJ and HUC, once criticized Lincoln for “his thousand and one demonstrations of imbecility” (Gary Phillip Zola, We Called Him Rabbi Abraham: Lincoln and American Jewry, [Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 2014], p. 208).

Since partisanship and political posturing are as common as muck, how can we decide whom we should follow or support? After all, this is an important question: our portion demonstrates that those who sided with Korach, Dathan, and Abiram not only ended up on the wrong side of history, but also ended up on the wrong side of the earth’s surface!

Our portion offers us an answer to this question toward the end of the sedra when we learn that Aaron (the Levite) is proven to be the indisputable leader of leaders. Aaron’s stature as a leader becomes apparent to the entire community when his staff “brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds” overnight. Moses placed Aaron’s fructified staff in front of the other chieftans’ staffs as a visual reminder of Aaron’s singular worthiness (Numbers 17:23-25).

What does the almond-blossomed staff teach about undisputed leadership?

According to the 11th century sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchak (Rashi), the almond is always the first tree to blossom (Rashi on Numbers 17:23). Its beautiful flowers and pleasant aroma are harbingers of springtime’s dawning — an insignia symbolizing the concepts of revitalization, renewal, and hope for the future.

In other words, the scepter of true leadership is forever abloom with fragrant flowers of hopefulness and expectation that should keep us focused on the vision of a land that flows with milk and honey — for all.

Rabbi Gary P. Zola, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives. He also serves as the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH.