Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, as a guide to political leaders who desired to attain power and retain it. Ever the realist, Machiavelli asserts that with power comes authority. Moreover, goodness and right are not sufficient to achieve power. And any and all means – including lying and coercion – may be employed in the process. Since the publication of The Prince in 1532 (eighteen years after it was written and only after Machiavelli’s death), critics have condemned it as cynical and even immoral. Yet it remains the blueprint for many aspiring statesmen and tyrants alike.
Machiavelli’s position was largely anticipated by Korah, the rebellious Levite who sought to wrest power from Moses and assume leadership himself. According to many Rabbinic homilies, Korah was not beyond deception, seeking to undermine Moses argumentatively. Moses was reluctant to defend himself against Korah’s specious arguments and personal attacks. Instead, as Rabbi Irving Greenberg notes, he tries to persuade Korah that prophetic and priestly service is not about public display or social standing, nor is the incense offering a show gesture carrying social prestige and status (16:9). True and effective leadership is about serving God and protecting His people. Power should never be self-serving.
Unfortunately, the rush to attain power for power’s sake has become all too common. Throughout the world government leaders act to change the rules in order to remain in power, constitutional rules notwithstanding. From Belarus to Nicaragua to Russia to the Palestinian Authority (note that Mohammed Abbas is currently serving the seventeenth year of a four-year term), staying in power has become more pressing than serving the people. And while Moses does entreat God to allow him to enter the Promised Land, he makes no attempt to thwart the transition of power.
Leadership is not a license to denude a country of its assets or achieve self-aggrandizement and national control. Leadership is a sacred mission, as Moses attests.