Greed and Power

Korah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 5, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

As Tyco International follows Enron and WorldCom into economic oblivion, the media increasingly focus on the bloated compensation packages that reward aggressive C.E.O.s. It is not easy to identify a moral culprit behind opaque accounting procedures. But unmitigated greed is an ancient and outrageous vice. The likes of L. Dennis Kozlowski, the fallen C.E.O. of Tyco, and Andrew Fastow, the disgraced former chief financial officer of Enron, seem to have viewed their companies as strip mines: take what you can get; employees and shareholders be damned. Eventually, the market metes out a crude form of justice, but not before many innocent and hardworking people are badly hurt. The loss of trust in the integrity of corporate America will take more than time to repair.

For all the vast differences in how we do business today, the Bible still has a contribution to make. Leadership rests on trust. The public needs to believe that power is not exercised solely for personal gain, but for the greater good, out of a sense of duty and with a high degree of probity. Holding public office (and both Tyco and Enron are publicly owned companies) is a responsibility as well as an opportunity. In this regard, nothing has changed from the time when Jethro counseled his son–in–law, Moses, to create a judiciary filled with “men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill–gotten gain (Exodus 19:21).”

Though we do not hear of such a judiciary again, Moses surely took this principle to heart. In this week’s parashah, stung by the rebellion of Korah and his ilk against his leadership, Moses asks God not to favor them: “Pay no regard to their offering. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them (Numbers 16:15).” Moses’ self–defense is wholly credible. It doesn’t pay to lie to God to whom all is known. In short, Moses’ public conduct was guided by Jethro’s standard. He never put his hand in the till nor abused his power.

The haftarah selected to complement the parashah reiterates the same high standard of conduct. At the end of an eventful tenure, Samuel, who led the twelve tribes as both judge and prophet, gathers the people to deliver his valedictory address. By now he has made his peace with their demand for more stability in the form of a monarchy. He opens by inviting one and all to bear witness against him if he misused his office for personal gain: “Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? I will return it to you (I Samuel 12:3).” Those assembled acknowledge readily that he has not betrayed their trust, where upon Samuel concludes: “The Lord then is witness, and His anointed is witness, to your admission this day that you have found nothing in my possession.” In one voice, the people concur: “He is (12:5)!”

The ceremony has the feel of a judicial proceeding. Samuel’s departure from office gives those shortchanged a chance to register their grievances, and Samuel is clearly and explicitly exonerated of any wrongdoing. His exercise of power did not end in corruption. This might be a ceremony worth reviving to mark our exit from office as an installation marks our entry. The challenge is to leave as unblemished as we came in.

In the biblical view, greed disqualified one from leadership. The sons of Eli, the priestly mentor of the young Samuel, were unsuited to follow their father. From every sacrifice brought by a pilgrim to Shiloh they would brazenly take their cut. Impiously, they exploited their posts as priests to feather their nests (I Samuel 2:12–17). Similarly, the sons of Samuel were deemed unworthy to succeed him. Although he annointed them as judges in Beer–sheba when he could no longer make the trip from Ramah, they quickly lost the confidence of the people because “they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes and they subverted justice (I Samuel 8:3).”

To keep temptation at bay, the book of Deuteronomy legislated that a king must guard against self–indulgence. He was not to amass horses or wives or silver and gold to excess, for all these ornaments of power would lead him astray (17:16–17), as they did King Solomon toward the end of his reign. Power culminated in a degree of royal opulence that make taxes intolerable. As Solomon threw prudence to the winds, the social fabric of his realm unraveled.

The Rabbis went so far as to claim that personal wealth was a prerequisite for holding office. All the prophets, they claimed, had been people of means. Poverty and prophecy were incompatible. Thus when Moses and Samuel contended that they had never expropriated a single animal what the rabbis understood them to be saying is that they did not do so even for a fair price. It was self–evident that a leader should not strip people of their belongings by force. That bar did not constitute a very high level of morality. Far loftier was the ideal that people ought not to be cajoled or intimidated into selling by the trappings of power. This is, according to the Rabbis, what Moses and Samuel had zealously avoided, exploiting their advantage legally in an inherently unequal relationship (BT Nedarim 38a). The legal and moral are often far apart. Minimally, however, power based on wealth for the Rabbis was less susceptible to abuse.

Not so in contemporary America, where financial gain is idolized as the greatest good. The moral constraints that once governed the exercise of authority have all but eroded. We do what we can get away with. The more uneven the playing field the better. The debacles sweeping Wall Street remind us of the sober truth that in a free and open market, the conduct of business cannot long prosper without a healthy dose of self–restraint. Self–interest may be the seedbed of capitalism, but not much endures without trust.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Korah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.