Leadership is supposed to be about giving, but many leaders become overly accustomed to taking.  An elusive phrase in this week’s parashat Korah invites us to explore what it means to be a leader – what it means, in other words, to be given the gift of giving.

After a fire breaks out and consumes 250 rebellious chieftains (Numbers 16:35), the people are terrified:  they will not come near the mishkan (tabernacle) lest they die as punishment for encroaching upon the sacred (17:27-28).  God seeks to allay their fears:  From now on, God tells Aaron, the priests (kohanim) and the Levites will bear primary responsibility for encroachment on Israel’s part (18:1).  God then describes the work of the priests in five opaque words[1] which have vexed interpreters for generations:  “Avodat matanah eten et kehunatkhem,” which JPS renders as “I will make your priesthood a service of dedication”; NRSV, in contrast, offers “I give your priesthood as a gift.”  An array of interpretations has been offered, but a great deal of debate remains, so much so that a renowned Bible scholar notes simply that “the crux remains unresolved.”[2]  Yet the very elusiveness of the words opens up fascinating interpretive possibilities, and enables us to ask:  Just how is priestly service (avodah) connected to gifts and giving (matanah)?  And what might we learn from all this about service and leadership more broadly?

Rashi (1040-1105) explains that the priestly service “is a gift I have given to you” (comments to Numbers 18:7).  Rashi’s simple words are subtly subversive of the ways we often think of responsibility and obligation.  Many of us find ourselves at times longing to be unencumbered – or at least less encumbered – by duties and obligations.  Perhaps we feel that we have too many obligations, or that we have the wrong ones.  In those moments, we tend to think of responsibility as an unbearable burden – and sometimes it is, in fact, just that.  But the opposite extreme would be no better, and would likely be far worse: a life without responsibility would be a life devoid of meaning or purpose.  Rashi’s comment reminds us that obligation is a privilege.  From a theological perspective, to be summoned to serve is an immense gift.[3]

More fundamentally, the Torah emphasizes that not all obligations are equal:  Serving Pharaoh and serving God are light-years apart.  Jewish theology insists that we are called to serve a God who loves us, affirms our dignity and seeks our flourishing.[4]  To serve God is thus considered a privilege and a delight.

Interpreting Rashi somewhat differently, R. Hezekiah b. Manoah (Hizkuni, 13th century) places the emphasis less on the word gift (matanah) and more on God’s insistence that God is the one who has assigned the priests their sacred work (natati).  On the heels of a devastating revolt in which rebellious leaders had insisted that Moses and Aaron were “going too far” in “raising themselves above” the rest of the people (16:3), God reminds the priests – and by extension, the Israelites as a whole – that their elevated status is divinely bestowed.  (Not everyone who gets promoted is a self-promoter.)

But perhaps it is not only the people who need such a reminder.  Those chosen to serve can all too often (and all too quickly) come to believe that the status they have achieved – or, as in this case, been granted – is a function of their incomparable virtue.  Accordingly, God reminds the priests that they have done nothing to earn their prominence.  “It is possible,” R. Aryeh Leib Tzintz (1768-1833) writes, “that [the purpose of God’s words] is that the priests, who are God’s servants, not grow haughty.”  Their status is a gift, a consequence of divine grace alone.  Not for naught, R. Tzintz argues, does Rabbinic tradition emphasize that a Torah scholar of lowly origins takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest (Mishnah, Horayot 3:8):  “The Torah scholar [after all, achieves his status] by his own efforts and is therefore greater” than the priest, who holds a position he “did nothing to earn” (Melo Ha-Omer to Numbers 18:7).[5]  R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) adds that God’s statement thus “does away with every idea of arrogance and presumptuousness, and all danger of conceited pride on the part” of those selected to serve (comments to Numbers 18:6-7) – or, at least, it ought to.

On this interpretation, then, God’s words to the priests parallel God’s reminder to the people as a whole.  Expounding upon the mystery of Israel’s election (what is usually called the idea of Israel’s “chosenness”), the Torah declares:  “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord desired you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath [the Lord] made to your fathers…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).   The Torah is only too keenly aware that belief in divine election can easily give way to triumphalism and self-congratulation and even worse, to the conviction that God has given Israel a moral blank check.  Do not delude yourselves, says Deuteronomy; God chose you through no merit of your own.  And the nation as a whole is more culpable – not less – on account of its special status.[6]  Similarly, the priests must bear in mind at all times that their elevation flows from divine grace rather than human achievement.

In labeling the priesthood a gift, then, God teaches a crucial double-lesson:  the people are reminded that the priests were chosen by God while the priests themselves are challenged to remember that God’s choice bespeaks no special merit on their part.

But the words avodat matanah may suggest something else entirely – not that service is a gift but that service must itself be oriented towards giving.  On this interpretation, the Torah instructs the priests that the heart of their task is to be givers.  R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the priestly service is “characterized as a gift, of giving oneself, of devotion.  All the acts performed in the Sanctuary reach their height in the concept of matanah, of giving oneself up, of devotion…  The whole service in the Sanctuary has the purpose of teaching us to give ourselves and to give all the gifts that we receive from God up to God and God’s Torah” (comments to Numbers 18:7).  

Why do the priests need this reminder?

R. Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) sharply distinguishes between two ways of being – “the way of expediency,” on the one hand, and “the way of wonder,” on the other.  In the former, our eye is always on how we can get what we want; in the latter, our focus is on how we can serve.  As R. Heschel puts it, when we are driven by expediency, “we accumulate information in order to dominate”; when we are animated by wonder, in contrast, “we deepen our appreciation in order to respond.”  We are, all of us, pulled by two opposing forces, “the impulse to acquire, to enjoy, to possess and the urge to respond, to yield, to give.”[7]

In a similar (but simpler) vein, R. Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) argues that every human being faces a fundamental choice, whether to be a giver (notein) or a taker (noteil).  “When the Almighty created human beings,” R. Dessler writes, “God made them capable of both giving and taking.”  To be created in the image of God is to have the capacity to imitate God’s own generosity; in giving we become like God, the Ultimate Giver.  But there is another dimension to human nature, “the faculty of taking, by which a person aspires to draw to himself all that comes within his reach.  This is what people call egotism or selfishness, and it is the root of all evils.”  On Dessler’s account, all of our character traits and actions derive from this fundamental choice of orientation – the decision to be givers or takers.[8]  

If the stark choices laid out by Heschel and Dessler apply to all of us, why do the priests in particular need to be reminded about being givers rather than takers?  Consider the realm of politics:  our culture is saturated with stories of people who start out genuinely wanting to serve but quickly grow intoxicated by the power, privilege, and prestige of office.  What begins as a yearning to give ends as a sense of entitlement to take.

Religious leaders are, sadly, not exempt from such temptations:  A commitment to serve gives way to a compulsive pursuit of fame, or power, or adoration.  So God reminds the priests – and by extension, all of us:  genuine leadership is about serving, not grasping.

To take this one step further:  The people are obligated to give gifts to the priests on a regular basis.[9]  In labeling their work avodat matanah God reminds the priests not to be seduced by the gifts that they receive on account of their status.  To borrow terms from R. Dessler, we might say that the priests are charged to “receive” gifts but not to “take” them.  R. Dessler emphasizes that we should not confuse taking with receiving, just as we should not conflate giving with having things taken from us.  “There is a type of person,” he writes, “who takes and lets people take from him…  His taking arises from self-love; he wants only to take and would much prefer not to give at all.  If anything is taken from him this is only because he is unable to prevent it.”  But there is another way, that of a “person who gives and receives.  He is the giver, whose giving flows from the source of pure goodness in his heart, and whose receiving immediately fills his heart with gratitude – in payment for whatever he receives.”[10]  The work of the priesthood is about giving – and though it entails receiving, its fundamental posture is love and generosity of spirit.[11]

All of this may shed powerful light on the interpretive puzzle with which parashat Korah begins.  The Torah tells us that “Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi,” together with a group of fellow rebels, “took (va-yikah)” and “rose up against Moses” (16:1-2). Oddly, the text never tells us just what Korah took in launching his insurrection.  Many interpretations have been offered, none of them fully satisfying.[12]  But if, in the wake of the rebellion, God feels the need to remind the priests that their service must be a service of giving, then perhaps what Korah took is besides the point:  The Torah wants us to understand something about what Korah is – a potential leader who is, at bottom, a taker.  Korah yearns for an exalted position so that power, prestige, and privilege can be his, and he thus becomes a kind of anti-leader, a model of what religious leaders must not become.  Accordingly, what God goes on to tell the priests is, in essence:  do not be like Korah; do not be seduced by the trappings of religious authority; do not be ensnared by the many opportunities you will have to take.   A true leader is a giver.  A leader who is at bottom a taker is a fraudulent leader.

The two approaches we’ve taken to understanding avodat matanah ultimately go hand in hand.  Service oriented to giving is in many ways itself a profound gift, a revolutionary alternative to the preoccupation with taking, acquiring, and consuming that is so powerful and pervasive in our culture.  As “a kingdom of priests a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), we are summoned to be like the priests – given the gift of being asked to become givers.

Rabbi Shai Held, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum from Class 7, is Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. He invites Wexner alumni to subscribe to his weekly divrei torah emails (to do so, click here). He has taught Modern Jewish Thought for the Wexner Heritage Program and both theology and Halakha at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Shai has a PhD in religion from Harvard and also served as Director of Education at Harvard Hillel. Shai’s book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, was published recently by Indiana University Press. Shai can be reached at held@mechonhadar.org.


[1] Or perhaps six, if we read va-avadetem (you shall perform), which precedes the clause, as part of it: ” Va-avadetem avodat matanah eten et kehunatkhem.”
[2] Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (1990), p. 315, n17.  
[3] It is worth mentioning, if only in passing, another possibility for how to understand God’s words:  The priestly service is given as a gift not to the priests but to the people as a whole.  As we have seen, the Israelites are afraid of dying, so God reassures them:  “The priesthood is a divine gift aimed at protecting Israel from the danger of divine holiness.”  Thomas Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 2 (1998), p. 147.  Cf. also Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers (1981), p. 60; and Dennis T. Olson, Numbers (1996), pp. 114-115. 
[4] Cf. what I have written in “Whom Do We Serve? The Exodus Toward Dignified Work,” CJLI Parashat Va-Yakhel 5774, available here.
[5] Bible scholar John Sturdy explains God’s words in a similar vein:  “The priests have done nothing to merit this privilege.  It is a free gift of God.”  John Sturdy, Numbers (1976), p. 127.  Cf. also Eryl Davies, Numbers (1995), p. 186.
[6] Cf. Amos 3:2.  And cf. what I have written about divine election in Shai Held, “A Bolt from the Blue,” in Shma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, available here.  
[7] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), pp. 36, 146.  I have analyzed these two life-orientations in Heschel’s thought in Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (2013), pp. 37-39.
[8] R. Eliyahu Dessler, Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 1, pp. 32-33.
[9] Indeed, this has been proposed as still another possible interpretation of avodat matanah – work which is valuable in that it is richly rewarded.  Cf., for example, Timothy Ashley, The Book of Numbers (1993), p. 344.  Cf. also R. Dennis Cole, Numbers (2000), p. 285.
[10] Dessler, Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 1, p. 48.
[11] On love and the priests, cf. what I have written in “On Channeling and Receiving Blessing,” CJLI Parashat Naso 5774, available here.
[12] For a useful discussion of proposed possibilities, cf. Milgrom, Numbers, pp. 312-313, n2.