The Challenges of Leadership

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A record (remember those?) I used to listen to was called “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” by Bob Booker and George Foster. At about the 12-minute mark is a sketch called, “The Presidents.” LBJ welcomes “the President of Israel” who acknowledges that Johnson is president of a country with 190 million people, “But I am president of a country of two million presidents.”

In one respect, probably not intentional on the record, is Korach’s claim in in this week’s Torah reading, that kol ha-eidah kulam k’doshim,” the whole entire community is holy.” Here, Korach, from the tribe of Levi, is challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and by extension, of God, who chose them to be the political and religious leaders of the Israelite community in the wilderness.

In TaNaKh, there’s a theme that in order to be a prophet or leader, you have to be reluctant. Moses tries to get out of the job at the Burning Bush; Samuel, which is this week’s haftarah, doesn’t have a choice, his mother, Hannah, made that decision for him. In both cases, these men were called upon by God to serve and lead, and they did their best under challenging circumstances. Both faced questions from parts of the community regarding their fitness to be in charge, and by extension, challenged the One who selected them.

In the Torah reading, things don’t end well for Korach and his followers; God doesn’t accept their offering of incense and the ground opens up and swallows them. In the haftarah, Saul is confirmed as king, ending the 400 year period of leadership by various Divinely appointed judges.

Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary, notes a pun in the text of the haftarah (1 Samuel 11:14-12:22). The name Saul–Sha-ool–shares the same root as the verb sha-al, which means to ask, or to question. Perhaps the text is telling us that God is ambivalent about selecting Saul, or responding to the people’s request for a king with a veiled threat of, “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

Challenging the status quo and challenging authority are part of who we are as people, as Jews, as Americans. When we do bring these challenges, may we be blessed with the ability to choose wisely. After all, we are all holy and so is our community.

 

 

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