Filling the Void: Korah 5773/2013

To Fill the Void (למלא את החלל) is a new Israeli film written and directed by Rama Burshtein, a Haredi woman who had previously made films only for internal consumption by other Haredi women. This film has earned critical acclaim, and I found it to be mesmerizing. There is a great deal to discuss, but I want to mention just one scene in the middle which delivers a bit of comic relief and also an important lesson on leadership. The central characters of this story find themselves in grief and anguish as they try to chart a path forward for their family. They come to their rebbe, who receives them and is intently considering their situation when his gabbai (secretary) starts interrupting, saying that there is a woman outside with an urgent need to speak with him. The rebbe is flustered and gently says that she will have to wait a bit, but the gabbai returns, saying it is really truly urgent. So, the rebbe tells her to come in. She is elderly, alone and desperate—for advice on what kind of kitchen stove to purchase! The rebbe ascertains that she has no one else to help her—no children, no neighbors, no friends—and then he stands up and takes her to the kitchen to demonstrate all of the useful features of his range-oven, reassuring her that one like that would be just right for her kitchen (את חושבת שזה נמוך מדי? אז הם יגביהו אותו). Here is the trailer.

You can easily imagine the rebbe or his gabbai refusing to help this woman—what, are we an appliance store? They could have sent some kid to take her shopping. But no, the rebbe realizes that this woman’s soul is in pain, and the only appropriate response is for him to drop everything and with kindness and dignity, to help her out. The other people will have to wait; they will also learn from his example of kindness and attention to the anxieties or others. Perhaps this can help with their situation. The rebbe’s humility is the key to his success as a pastor and a leader of his community.

Humility in leadership, and its opposite, is the great theme of Parashat Korah. Korah, Datan and Aviram and their colleagues attack the leadership of Moses on several levels—he and Aaron have arrogated too much power; they have lorded it over the people; and they have failed to deliver on their mission of delivering the people to a safe and prosperous land. All of these criticisms sting, because there is an element of truth to them. Moses may be humble inside, but this may not be so apparent to the people he rules. The desert trek has been frightening and dangerous. And if the selection of Aaron and his sons is not nepotism, it certainly looks that way.

Of course, Korah and his gang may just be self-centered rabble rousers, talking of populism but plotting like most revolutionaries do to depose the leader and take his place and precedent for their own power. Still, the test here is not just political—it is moral and religious as well.

I have always loved the instinctual response of Moses—to literally fall on his face. He humbles himself not in submission but in order to demonstrate the reality—that he is not an arrogant power grabber, but a devoted servant-leader. In this Moses is actually following the example of God. One of my favorite Talmudic texts is found in b. Megilah 31a. It is a list of the Torah and haftarah readings for the holidays, but interpolated in the middle is a statement about divine humility. Rabbi Yohanan teaches, “Every place where you find mention of the might of the Holy One, you also find mention of God’s humility. This is taught in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and again in the Writings.…”

God shows humility in dwelling among the people, and in attending to their fears and frustrations. In order to be an effective leader, Moses needs to humble himself so that when he exercises his authority, it is accepted as wise and altruistic, not self-aggrandizing.

This, of course, is the challenge of every person who would seek to lead our community. Titles like “Rabbi” and “Cantor” are distinguished, and give us access to significant leadership opportunities. People want to hear our voices, but there is danger in this adulation. At the very moment that one becomes filled with self-importance, a Korah will step forward to challenge your demeanor. And the worst part of it is that they may be right. Actually, that is the best part of it, if we can only drop our defenses and re-focus on our task.

On Shabbat Korah it is important to examine ourselves—our public persona and our private agenda. Like Moses and Aaron, we may need to humble ourselves repeatedly in order to learn and grow into the servant-leaders we ought to become.

Shabbat shalom, R’ Danny Nevins

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף לא עמוד א 

 אמר רבי יוחנן: כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של  הקדוש ברוך הוא אתה מוצא ענוותנותו; דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש  בכתובים. כתוב בתורה –  +דברים י’+   כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדני האדנים,  וכתיב בתריה עשה משפט יתום ואלמנה. שנוי בנביאים –  +ישעיהו נ”ז+   כה אמר רם  ונשא שכן עד וקדוש וגו’, וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח. משולש בכתובים דכתיב   +תהלים ס”ח+   סלו לרכב בערבות ביה שמו, וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודין אלמנות.