Shabbat Shalom! – Korach

Image: An ominous cloud, an approaching storm (pixabay)

This week’s Torah portion is a challenge. It contains the story of Korach, the Levite who felt slighted by God and by Moses. The portion is difficult to read on many levels – it is a complex text with many problems for understanding and the end of it is emotionally charged for many of us. It is one of the most famous stories in Torah.

The story of Korach became a yardstick for judging human behavior:

“Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure. What is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute not for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute of Korach and his assembly.” – Pirkei Avot 5:17

Have I intrigued you?  Parashat Korach is Numbers 16:1- 18:32. For some ideas about interpretation, here are seven divrei Torah:

The Women Behind the Men Emerge: Take a bow, Ms. On ben Pelet by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

“He Stood Between the Dead and the Living” by Rabbi Lisa Edwards

A Lesson in Conflict Resolution by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

An Anti-Semite’s Delight by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Korach and the Un-Holiness of Racism by Dr. Shaiya Rothburg

Korach, Privilege, and Striving for More by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Claims and Flames by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

 

 

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Shabbat Shalom! Korach

We need Shabbat so much this week – as we have so often of late – and this week’s Torah portion is a challenge. It contains the story of Korach, the Levite who felt slighted by God and by Moses. The portion is difficult to read on many levels – it is a complex text with many problems for understanding and the end of it is emotionally charged for many of us. It is one of the most famous stories in Torah, and it has resonance for today, for sure.

Have I intrigued you?  Parashat Korach is Numbers 16:1- 18:32. For some ideas about interpretation, here are some divrei Torah:

How Not To Have A Conversation by Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot

Praise the Contrary and Its Defenders by Sue Schwartz

Korach and the Un-Holiness of Racism by Dr. Shaiya Rothburg

Korach at the Wedding by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Korach, Privilege, and Striving for More by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Korach: the Brexit Challenge of its Day by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Claims and Flames by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Don’t Give Up – Even on Korach!

Image: A sinkhole in an intersection in Brooklyn, NY in 1915 Photo: katz/Shutterstock.

This week we read about Korach and his followers in Numbers 16-18, one of the grimmest stories in the Torah. Korach, a Levite, challenges the leadership of Moses. Moses refers the dispute to God. God blasts Korach and his followers, causing some to be consumed by fire and some to be swallowed by a huge opening in the earth. Frankly, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3 offers us a list of those “who have no portion in the world to come:” the Flood generation. the Babel generation, the men of Sodom, and the Spies who rejected the land of Israel. Then it offers us an additional list about which the sages disagreed: according to Rabbi Akiva, the generation of the Wilderness, the congregation of Korach, and the Ten Tribes also have no place in the world to come. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. For each of those, he cites a text suggesting that redemption is possible. For the people of Korach, he cites a line from the prayer of Hannah: “The LORD kills, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up.” (1 Samuel 2:6)

The Torah text seems unequivocal in its condemnation of Korach: all is lost, the men offering incense are burnt up like Nadav and Abihu, and God commands Moses to order Eleazar remove the fire pans and have them made into plating for the altar, as a warning.

But our sages were not content to give up on the followers of Korach. From the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis persist in a hope that they will yet be found, like “a lost object that is still being sought,” in the words of R. Yehudah ben Betera (Sanhedrin 109b.) Shall we not follow their example, then, and refuse to give up on our fellow Jews, even when we think they are utterly wrong about something?

A version of this drash appeared in the Summer 1915 CCAR Newsletter.

Korach at the Wedding

Image: Two peach-colored roses. (reinbacher/pixabay)

This is a sermon I delivered at at Israel Congregation of Manchester, Vermont on Shabbat morning, June 21, 2014. It is intended to be heard rather than read, so I have left it in my “sermon format” to give readers a better sense of how it sounded. The occasion was the aufruf of Yuval Sela and Rabbi David Novak.

The fact that the reading of Parashat Korach usually falls in the month of June is evidence that God has an annoying sense of humor.

Here we are, a congregation gathered from the four corners of the world to celebrate a wedding, a covenant of love, in the month traditional for weddings, and what are we reading in the Torah?

Korach.

How can we possibly speak of Korach and at the same time, speak of love? 

Korach is the disgruntled relative at the wedding.  

Korach stood at Sinai, at the wedding of God and Israel and seethed because he felt slighted.

Korach dealt with his troubles not by talking quietly and directly to Moses or to God, but by gossiping with the neighbors, working himself and them up into a fury.

Korach is the one with legitimate questions and hurt feelings who in his unhappiness stirred up an entire community and brought them to disaster.

THAT Korach.

And yet here we are, talking about Korach.

__________________

As with all of Torah, there is always more to notice.  

Dr. Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on the book of Numbers writes that the theme of Parashat Korach is “encroachment upon the Tabernacle.” He suggests that the real issue here are the boundaries of the Tabernacle, and the boundaries on the behavior of those who guard it.

The Tabernacle, the Mishkan, stands at the center of this Torah portion as surely as it stood in the center of the camp of the Israelites.

They had built it according to God’s command, 

Va’asu li mikdash, v’shochanti b’tocham  (Exodus 25:8)

“Let them Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.”

The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is that dwelling place. It is not a house for God – God needed no house and certainly could fit into no container. God cannot be put in a box.

The Mishkan is instead a visible sign for the Israelites of the covenant, the Brit, between the People Israel and God.

It stands at the center of the camp, because the Brit itself is at the center of the relationship between God and Israel.

Although it is referred to most often as Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, it is much more than a tent. It is a complex of concentric walls forming an outer shrine and an inner tent, the Kodesh Kodeshim, the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant was placed.

From the point of view of the average Israelite, the Mishkan must have been much more than a Dwelling, an address for God.

It was the container for unimaginable Power. 

It was the locus of the Kavod Adonai, usually translated as the Presence or the Glory of God.

At this point in the narrative, as the story of Korach begins, there has already been one disaster at the Mishkan, a disaster with fatalities.

Just after their ordination as Kohanim, two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu got all excited and made an offering before the Mishkan.  It was a youthful improvisation, a fire that had not been commanded by God,

an Esh Zara, a strange fire.

And to the horror of those watching, the Fire of God rushed out from the Mishkan and 

v’tochal otam – it consumed them – it ate them up.

So from the point of view of the average Israelite, the Mishkan was likely both a sign of joy, a sign of the covenant and the protection of God, and a fearsome locus of unpredictable power.

That thing could kill you.

But Korach was no ordinary Israelite. 

He was a Levite, and a prince among the Levites, a close relative of Aaron and Moses. He was sure of his merit, of his fitness to stand before the Mishkan with incense in his firepan.

So when Moses responds to Korach’s challenge by saying, 

“Come to the Tent of Meeting with a fire pan and incense and fire, and bring your 250 followers with you with fire pans of their own” Korach did not blink.

He showed up, with 250 followers and the fire pans and the fire, and as we know from the portion, it ended in disaster.

Korach and his followers were swallowed by the earth, a terrifying sign of the disapproval of God. Fire again came forth from the Mishkan, and there were fatalities.

And it did not end there. The people were angry with Moses, God was angry with the people, and there were more deaths, more disaster before the narrative finally closes.

When it was all done, the Israelites were terrified of the Mishkan. 

So as often happens in the Torah, a passage of narrative is followed by a passage full of commandments. God gives Israel a set of commandments for guarding the Mishkan and for the job descriptions and perquisites for its keepers, the Kohanim and the Levites.

——————–

But what can any of this have to do with Love?

The Mishkan was a visible sign of the covenant between God and Israel. 

Again and again in our tradition, human love is held up as an analogy of that covenant. The entire book of Song of Songs, a book of love poetry, is traditionally interpreted as an account of the love between God and Israel. Hosea the prophet spoke of love and its disappointments,and many medieval piyyutim, liturgical poems, illustrate the bond between God and Israel as bonds of love.

That analogy holds up because Love is not the sweet, sugary, hearts and roses thing that sells on Valentine’s Day. 

Real love between human beings is sweet, but it is also powerful. It can be terrifying to truly love another person, to feel that your destiny is no longer yours alone, but is joined with another.

Ask any love struck adolescent about the delightful lure of love. 

Ask any lovers. 

And ask any poet, any cop, any divorce attorney about love’s destructive potential.

Like the Power that dwelt within the ancient Mishkan enclosure, love has the power to transform, to do miracles, to break hearts, to heal or to wreck lives.

All love has this power: love between parent and child and love between friends,

but especially the love that transforms two separate people into one flesh, one heart, one household.

————-

We are gathered here this weekend to build a dwelling for the love between David and Yuval.

They will set boundaries according to the laws of Moses, and the laws of the state of Vermont.

This dwelling, this mishkan, this marriage will be a sign of their covenant. 

It will be at the center of their camp, their home. 

All of us who are married, or who have been married know that simply building the mishkan is just the beginning. The covenant of marriage is a covenant between two people who do not know what lies ahead, what joys, what sorrows.

But at the heart of their home they have this covenant, this dwelling place for the power of love between them as they travel through the midbar, the wilderness of life.

It is up to the married couple to live out the details of the covenant, to faithfully observe its upkeep, just as the ancient Kohanim and Levites kept up with the details and routine of the Mishkan.

It us up to all of us, their family and friends and community to honor this marriage that is about to be,to respect its boundaries, and to respect the power of the love that dwells within it.

Let Korach be a warning to us all about the consequences of encroachment upon the tabernacle, about the necessity of boundaries and about the power of holiness.

May David and Yuval’s home always be a sanctuary.

May this mishkan, this dwelling place, this covenant that they are building hold up against the vicissitudes of a crazy world.

And may each of us find our own home in the camp of Israel: Married and single, gay and straight, old and young let us live out our destiny to become a holy people,

A people with God in our hearts.

Shabbat shalom.

Bret Harte on Korach

Bret Harte (public domain)
Bret Harte (public domain)

When Korach and his followers are swallowed up by the earth in this week’s Torah portion, I am always reminded of Bret Harte’s quip about Oakland’s relative quiet during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “There are some things the earth cannot swallow.”

It really isn’t a funny line, if you’re an Oaklander, especially if you remember Mother Earth shaking us all in her teeth during the 1989 earthquake. Or, I guess, if you’re Korach.

I am traveling and at the wedding of dear friends. Posts may be sparse and brief for a bit.

Where Did Korach Go Wrong?

"Korach" by Barry Pousman, some rights reserved
“Korach” by Barry Pousman, some rights reserved

This week’s Torah portion tells one of the saddest stories in the Torah. A cousin of Moses and one of the leading Levites, Korach ben Izhar is angry. He feels that he has been passed over for leadership of the family; he also feels that Moses and Aaron have taken all the power for themselves. In talking with his neighbors in camp, some Reubenites, he got angrier and angrier, until he and his friends have decided to make a rebellion. They and 250 men, leaders of the Israelites, come to Moses and tell him that he has to share the power. “All of Israel is holy!” says Korach, “Not just you!”

If you want to know the rest of the story, you can read it here. It’s very, very sad. Also violent. God rejects the rebels and they die horribly. We are left to wonder, where did Korach go wrong?

My favorite commentary on this story is from Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli philosopher and Torah scholar. Dr. Leibowitz points out that Korach misread the Torah. In Leviticus 19, God says, “Ki-do-sheem ti-hi-yoo:” “Be holy.” It’s a command, not a statement.

Israel is not yet holy. We are commanded to work towards holiness by doing mitzvot and studying Torah.

Korach’s feelings had been hurt and it clouded his judgment. Because his judgment was impaired, he made the command into a statement, to hear what he wanted to hear. Then, to compound the trouble, instead of talking it over calmly with Moses and Aaron (his cousins!) he talked up his anger with Dotan and Abiram, his neighbors from the tribe of Reuven. Everybody got madder and madder, and before they knew it, they were rebels, shouting at Moses. Things got out of hand.

That’s what happens when hurt festers, and is magnified by conversations with other angry people. In this case, a lot of people died. But I imagine if you think about it, you can think of other times when someone got their feelings hurt, and spread stories around among other angry people, and a community was damaged.

The lesson? That’s in the passage from Pirkei Avot that opened this post. The mishnah tells us that the 1st century students of Hillel and Shammai would argue in the academy, but then they’d hang it up for the day, and share meals. There were marriages between the two groups. They spoke with one another outside the study hall, sharing food and joy, despite the fact that they had serious disagreements about matters of Jewish law. Korach, on the other hand, stayed separate and angry, only talking to Moses after the trouble had blown up into a full rebellion. The students of Hillel and Shammai did not invest their egos in their arguments; Korach was all hurt feelings and ego.

For an argument to be “for the sake of heaven” it needs to be conducted properly, and it needs to be about the issues, not about personalities. May we learn this lesson before we wind up like poor Korach.