Who is an expert and who is a leader?

In the age of the Internet, with the democratization of knowledge, it seems that the answer to the first question is “everyone.” With the advent of blogs and social networking tools like Twitter, the bar to sharing your views and expertise is relatively low. Write a particularly astute (or funny or controversial) website, and you may find yourself being quoted and followed by countless strangers. Everyone has a chance to have a voice, though it may be frustrating sometimes to figure out who actually knows what they are talking about versus who is just spinning tales. That is often the difference between those who have something to say and those who inspire others to act on that information. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the New Yorker in late 2010, motivating activism requires deep personal relationships and the willingness to take serious risks. It requires a commitment and authority deeper than a “like” on Facebook.

As this week’s parsha, Korach, begins, Moses and Aaron are staring down rebellion. Korach, one of Moses’ cousins from the tribe of Levi, along with a significant number of distinguished Israelite chieftains, challenges Moses’ claim to leadership. Their cry of outrage “For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above God’s congregation” (Numbers 16:3) would seem to have some validity. Earlier, when Joshua objected to the prophesying of some of the 70 elders chosen to serve as Moses’ bureaucracy, the Israelites’ leader seemed to welcome the widening of the circle of God’s experts: “Would that all of God’s people were prophets, that God would put God’s spirit on them.”

But the democratization of access to God – being holy – is different than having the right to lead. Leadership among the Israelites stems not from having the most followers, but through God’s choice alone. Faced with a tide of self-proclaimed leaders, Moses can only appeal to divine intervention to make clear that his relationship with God trumps claims of lineage or holiness. When he challenges Korach and his followers to a test of God’s support, he claims no credit for himself: “By this you shall know that it was God who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising” (Numbers 16:28). Moses is indeed no more holy than his detractors; it is not holiness that sets him apart, but mission.

While Moses may play down his unique relationship with God as a way of quelling the anger of the rebellious masses or avoiding personal responsibility for their deaths, God is deeply angered by the challenge to God’s choice of leader. Indeed, God so resents having others lay claim to leadership – to mistaking their expertise, their holiness, for the right to take Moses’ place – that even after the deaths of Korach and his followers, God extends God’s anger to the entire people. God tells Moses and Aaron: “Remove yourself from this community, so that I may annihilate them in an instant” (Numbers 17:9), and sends a plague to wipe out the Israelites who had not already been swallowed by the earth, together with Korach and his followers.

It is with the plague that Moses’ deep relationship with God is validated: It is only through his instructions to Aaron that God’s seemingly uncontrollable wrath is contained (17: 11-15). The rebels may have some truth to their words – surely anyone in the community can be holy, can be a prophet, can share access to the divine. This is to everyone’s benefit. But only those who are willing to take risks with their knowledge and holiness can lead.