Friday, June 27, 2008

The Politics of Privilege (Derashah: Korach)

After last week's derashah, I just wanted to present a quiet, laid-back dvar torah. Here it is:

At least one element of presidential campaigns is guaranteed: Every four years, one major candidate, if not both, will be accused of being part of a privileged elite. Think George Bush Sr and his surprise at seeing a supermarket scanner, Bill Clinton and his Rhodes Scholarship, John Kerry and his money, or the current President Bush and his oil wealth. Now, Barack Obama is hearing it for his Ivy League education and law career.

We don’t like to entrust authority to a privileged class. As William F. Buckley wrote in 1963, “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” We worry about government by people who don’t share our interests and ideals. But, as our parshah shows, that worry is misguided.

Moshe’s life is proof that the privileged can lead, that the trappings of upper class power and prestige do not automatically rob a person of that basic human empathy which enables one descendant of Adam and Chavah to attend, with selfless sensitivity, to the needs of others.

As Korach accurately charged, Moshe was blessed with all manner of privilege - political, priestly and prophetic - but one would be hard-pressed to find a leader who ever cared for his flock as Moshe did, who took more literally than Moshe the responsibility of carrying the nation כאשר ישא האומן את היונק, as a nurse carries a nursling.

This message is brought home in the heart of the book of Bamidbar, as Moshe’s career is contrasted with those of three other parties, each of whom shared some of Moshe’s privileges, but each of whose actions varied sharply from his.

First, we met the Meraglim, the Spies of last week’s parshah, who were introduced as ראשי בני ישראל, leaders of the Jewish people. These were the diplomatic representatives of each tribe, much as Moshe was the representative of the nation. Both they and Moshe were treated with special privilege, and one might have expected their leadership to resemble that of Moshe.

In practice, though, the Meraglim were a leadership bust, surrendering to their most basic fear of the Canaanites, and according to some commentators surrendering to their fear of losing their positions of power. Contrast that cowardice with Moshe’s heroism in wars against various nations, and with Moshe’s willingness to share authority and power with Yehoshua and the elders.

Clearly, political privilege does not determine leadership style.

Second, we meet Korach, who, like Moshe, is a member of the priestly class of Leviyyim. He, like Moshe, is of the Kehat family, who carried the most sacred implements of the Mishkan. Given that he and Moshe are both privileged to be Leviyyim and Kehat descendants, one might have expected Korach’s leadership to resemble that of Moshe.

But, in practice, Korach was selfish, seeking more power for himself. He demanded that Aharon surrender his position as Kohen Gadol, but he never offered to surrender his own special benefits. Contrast that with Moshe’s willingness to offer the priesthood to Korach and his group - Moshe sought nothing for himself.

The privilege of priesthood, then, does not determine leadership style, either.

And then, in two weeks, we will encounter Bilam, who, like Moshe, was a prophet. As the midrash explains, Bilam was specifically given the equivalent of Moshe’s abilities, so that the non-Jewish nations could not protest that they had not been given a Moshe-like leader. Bilam, like Moshe, communicated with Gd easily and frequently, and one might have expected his leadership to resemble that of Moshe.

Instead, we find that Bilam used his prophetic powers for his own aggrandizement, seeking to convince Gd to support his bid to curse the Jews so that he might earn a big payday from his sponsors. Contrast that with Moshe’s insistence of לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי, I have never taken anything, not a single donkey, from the Jewish people.

The privilege of prophecy also does not determine leadership style.

Through these three contrasts, Sefer Bamidbar teaches us that a human being neither gains nor loses his concern for others and or leadership potential because of the gifts of his particular life. Or as J.K. Rowling put it, through the mouth of Albus Dumbledore, “It is our choices that define us far more than our abilities.”

Moshe lives that doctrine, and with all of his class privileges, Moshe’s response to Korach provides textbook instruction on how to sympathize with others: Despite Korach’s obvious selfish phoniness, and despite the very personal nature of Korach’s accusations, Moshe takes Korach’s charges seriously because he knows that among Korach’s followers, both the vocal and the silent, there may be some who are convinced by his questions, who are drawn by the populist rhetoric of “Moshe has arrogated power for himself.” And so Moshe prudently offers Korach’s group a chance to bring incense themselves, even though he knows they are doomed to failure, and so Moshe patiently visits the tents of Korach’s followers to seek peace. This is the behavior of the עניו מכל אדם, the most humble of all, who seeks not to gain but to serve.

The political spin doctors, in urging us to be swayed by the privileges we do not share with specific political candidates, are presenting a misleading doctrine. By dint of common humanity and personal humility, any one of us can see the needs of others, and be motivated to meet those needs. This is the true test of our leaders, and of those who would lead us next.

Note: Buckley's quote is credited to his 1963 work, Rumbles Left and Right, but I have not seen it in the original book.

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