Thursday, June 6, 2013

It Isn't About You: Insights from Parashat Korach and Colby's Commencement

Captain Erik Quist '99 and his wife Liz Czernicki Quist ’98
         "It isn't about me."  This was the wisdom that Captain Erik Quist (Colby '99) stated repeatedly in his remarks at Colby's bicentennial honorary degree dinner.  Captain Quist had been seriously injured in Afghanistan, and wanted desperately to return to the Marine Corps after his recovery.  However, if he would be more of a burden than a help to the Corps, he understood that he would have to pursue another path because, after all, "it wasn't about him."  After the September 11th attacks, he left a career in finance to serve God and country, and even after his injury, he has remained committed to that mission.  At the same time, he acknowledged that sometimes individuals need to step back from their personal passions for the sake of achieving a communal mission.  It would have behooved Korach, the protagonist from this week's Torah portion, to have heard Captain Quist's remarks.
          In this week's Torah portion, Korach challenges the authority of Moses and Aaron, and instigates a rebellion.  He and his followers are unwilling to accept that Moses and Aaron should have special leadership roles when God tells Israel that the entire people is holy.  Even though Korach did have a unique role among the people, it was not good enough for him; he believed that there should be no one above him.  Initially, it appears that Korach is organizing for all the right reasons.  He has ostensibly cultivated a community that is committed to radical equality.  However, as the text continues, it is clear that Korach is not really interested in equality as much as deconstructing the established order for his personal advancement.
            In Numbers 16:6, we come across the phrase "korach v’adato", Korach, and his eidah. It appears that he has created an eidah, a community, separate from the rest of the nation. Indeed, in the Aramaic translation of the Bible, this analysis of Korach’s motivation is read into the beginning of the portion. In 16:1, Onkolus translates" v’yikach korach", and Korach took, as "v’etpaleg korach", and Korach separated himself. This indictment could not have been more clearly articulated than by Moses himself who, angry and exasperated, asks Korach, “המעת מכם כהבדיל אלוקי ישראל אתכם מעדת ישראל?” Is it not enough that God has distinguished you from the rest of the people Israel? “What more do you want?” Moses asks – how special do you want to be? Essentially, Moses and Aaron are calling out Korach, identifying his true colors. Whether or not Korach’s ambitions were initially righteous, throughout the portion he increasingly separates himself from the community – seeking glory instead of justice or the well being of the people Israel.
           When a nation is in the desert struggling for survival, it cannot afford to empower people like Korach.  True leaders understand that they cannot put their egos before God and country if they want to retain the respect of their troops and complete difficult missions.  In Numbers 12:3 we learn that Moses' most outstanding characteristic was that he was the most humble man on earth.  God chose a humble man who was slow with words to lead the people Israel through its most challenging trials, not an eloquent speaker who loved the limelight.  When God chose Moses to lead the people, he was instructing future generations on how to elect and train leaders.
           This week let us be inspired by the example of Captain Quist, and learn from the errors of Korach.   The desire to sacrifice is praiseworthy and important, but sometimes it needs to be channeled in different ways than we would like.  The true test of a leader is whether she can redirect her passions in a way that serves the whole, even when it means sacrificing personal fulfillment.  Let us appoint such individuals to leadership positions, and strive to emulate their integrity and mettle.

Shabbat Shalom.