Parashat Korach begins with the story of Korach’s revolt against the authority of Moshe and Aharon, which resulted in the death of Korach and his followers. The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (110a) adds a startling aspect to this story which is not mentioned in the Torah, telling that during Korach’s uprising, the people suspected Moshe of engaging in adulterous relationships (“chasheduhu mei-eishet ish”). These rumors reached the point where the men all warned their wives not to be secluded with Moshe, in accordance with the halakhic procedure of kinui, whereby a suspicious husband warns his wife not to be secluded with the man in question.
Rav Matzliach Yechiel Ovadya, in his Chazon Ovadya, suggests a novel, euphemistic reading of the Gemara’s comment. He cites the Midrash’s striking comment in the Pesikta (22), “Whoever accepts upon himself authority in order to benefit from it is like an adulterer who benefits from a woman’s body.” If a person assumes a leadership position for personal benefit, in order to enjoy the perks and prestige of authority, then he is comparable to no less than an adulterer, who violates other people, entering into their private lives in order to benefit from that which is most precious to them. The Pesikta cites in reference to such figures the verse in Mishlei (6:32), “An adulterer with a woman is heartless.” A leader who accepts his position for personal gain is “heartless,” seeking to benefit off the backs of innocent people, using what is theirs for his own purposes and interests, like an adulterer.
In light of this comparison, Rav Ovadya suggests, the Gemara’s comment regarding the people’s suspicions of Moshe may be interpreted allegorically. The Gemara perhaps describes in graphic terms the nature of Korach’s revolt, how he succeeded in garnering such widespread support for his audacious, ill-advised and ill-fated campaign. He did this by depicting Moshe as a “heartless” leader who uses his position for personal gain, who governs and rules not out of genuine concern for the people, but rather to further his own interests.
Korach’s accusation, of course, was false, but nevertheless, this interpretation of the Gemara reminds us of the acute danger of insincerity particularly in the area of leadership and influence. Chazal in the aforementioned passage use the harshest possible terms to describe a person who assumes a position of influence for personal benefit, rather than out of sincere idealism. If a person exerts authority or influence to boost his own ego or satisfy his craving for honor and prestige, then he is, in the eyes of the Midrash, violating and using his charges. Positions of influence must be reserved for people who follow the example of Moshe Rabbenu, the humblest man on the face of the earth, who assumed his leadership role ambivalently, and with a sincere desire to work for the people’s best interests, rather than his own.