The Wall Street Journal/NBC News published a poll this week reporting on the public’s approval rating of President Obama with special focus on his administration’s honesty and integrity in light of the Benghazi investigation, the IRS scandal and Drone attacks. The President currently enjoys a 48% approval rating and 47% disapproval, about what it was two months ago, largely along partisan lines but indicating a drop in approval among independent voters.

Sadly, there are many others in Washington who do not do nearly as well in the polls. The approval ratings for members of Congress as a whole have suffered dramatically in recent years into the low double digits not only because that august body has become so dysfunctional, but also because too many of our representatives refuse to compromise and find solutions to the nation’s many problems. Rather, they act more consistent with the laws of the jungle and abide by the philosophy that ends justify means, might makes right, cynicism trumps hope, and power is an ultimate “good.”

There are, of course, many decent servant-leaders in Washington and around the country who, despite formidable obstacles, seek to do well and work diligently on behalf of the common good.

This week’s Torah portion Korach considers both kinds of leaders as it tells the story of a major rebellion led by Korach and 250 Israelite leaders.

Korach was the first cousin of Moses and Aaron (Ex 6:18-21), a member of the priestly class and part of the ruling elite. The leaders around him are described as “Princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) The Talmud says of them “that they had a name recognized in the whole world.” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a).

Despite his elevated status Korach wasn’t satisfied. He challenged Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood, and his cohorts Dathan and Abiram questioned Moses’ leadership. Korach’s goal was to unseat the divinely chosen leaders, and he appealed to the people to overthrow them using religious language and espousing the importance of rotating leaders in office, all of whom were equally worthy.

“And they assembled themselves together against Moses and … Aaron, and said [to them], ‘You take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them.’”

In actuality, Korach and his minions were not democrats at all; they were demagogues who manipulated and incited the masses for their narrow self-interests.

Rabbi Moshe Weiler, the founder of liberal Judaism in South Africa, has written that “Theirs [i.e. Korach and his cohorts] was the pursuit of kavod, honor and power, in the guise of sanctity and love of the masses.”

Onkolos (2nd century C.E.), in his Aramaic translation of the two opening words of the portion, Vayikach Korach (“And Korach took”) wrote It’peleg Korach (“And Korach separated himself”), suggesting that he did not consider himself to be one with the people nor was he interested in serving their interests.

Korach sought power for power’s sake and he ignited a controversy based on ignoble motivations and nefarious goals leading to the devastation of the community. In the end, the earth swallowed the rebels alive and sent them to Sheol in a spectacular inferno. (Numbers 16:31-35)

Korach’s eish ha-mach’loket (“fire of controversy”) became an eish o-che-lah (“a devouring fire”) that augured doom.

“The Sayings of the Sages” (5:21) reflects upon Korach’s rebellion and distinguishes between two very different kinds of controversy. The first is healthy and useful, pursued for the sake of heaven (l’shem shamayim) that brings about blessing and a stronger community. The second is a pernicious fight not based on lasting values and brings about disunity and destruction. Hillel and Shammai (1st century BCE) embodied the former, and Korach and his legions the latter.

Korach was essentially a cynic. Moses was the opposite, the humble servant-leader.

Who are we? Do we resonate with the voice of Korach or the spirit of Moses?

Who are our leaders? Are they interested only in power or in the common good?

Rabbi Rachel Cowan opines that though every individual may, indeed, aspire to be like Moses, Korach lives within our hearts too.

In thinking about ourselves and our leaders, the words of Maimonides remind us of the importance of pursuing higher virtue:

“The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7)

Upon reading this my brother asked me, “Do you know anyone in public service who measures up to this high standard?”

I responded, “Not quite – but every public servant ought to aspire to do so.”

Shabbat shalom!