Korach 5772: Rebellion, Holiness, and Leadership

on Friday, 22 June 2012. Posted in Sermons

I have to admit that this is a particularly surprising Torah portion for the Sabbath on which we are installing our Temple Board.  As you are now aware, Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite Korach and his followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies...  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heard from again.  By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.

But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses' leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In fact, in a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved by the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week's story of the failed spies, it seems as though our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly being dissatisfied, and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Always, whoever was in charge got the brunt of the criticism and the lion's share of the hostility.

In fact, that tendency has remained a particularly Jewish one throughout our long history.  While we joke about the stereotype of two Jews having three opinions, the truth is that our heritage is a contentious one.  If we weren't rebelling against God and Moses we were fighting for control of the monarchy or against Phillistines or Greeks or Romans.  And when actual armed insurrection was beyond us we engaged in intellectual debates so intense that they often bordered on warfare: from the endless, detailed Talmudic arguments to the political infighting of the Zionists to the Jewish socialists against the Jewish communists against the Jewish anarchists there is a long and rich and highly developed tradition of Korach-ism.

Since Korach is considered to be the worst of all of these, I wondered if there is any clue in the Hebrew of his name.  It turns out that the Hebrew root, theshoresh Korach, has a few other meanings.  One is to cut or shear things, to slice.  Certainly rebellion is intended as a cutting gesture.  Another meaning ofKuf reish chet is ice or cold, like Kerach—to chill or freeze, again a kind of reflection of emotional distance and hostility.  Put those together, to cut and to make cold and you come up with... well, cold cuts.  Very Jewish.

My favorite korach translation is the meaning baldness, Karei'ach which seems to indicate that a lack of hair is, well, potentially untrustworthy... my apologies, on behalf of the Hebrew language, to all bald people present tonight for the Bald Installation—er, Board Installation.

There is in Midrash another kind of clue.  Korach is considered to have been a very wealthy man, a kind of Jewish Croesus, the Rothschild, the Bill Gates of the Sinai Desert Israelites.  There is a Hebrew slang term, otzrot Korach, the treasures of Korach, which basically means someone is filthy rich.  Somehow his wealth is associated with the tendency to revel in rebellion.

Let's see now: rebellion against God's appointed leaders comes then from a coldness of heart and a desire to cut, it reflects a paucity of the insulating calm of hair and it is inflamed by the financial means to support true rebellion.  Odd, and perhaps interesting.

But all of this speculative exploration of the meaning of this particular Shabbat for Board Installation is perhaps unwarranted: after all, we had originally scheduled our Board Installation Shabbat for a different date and parshah altogether.  But still, there is something here for us to learn.

The truth is that leading Jews has never been an easy task—important, rewarding, ethically essential, but never, ever easy.  If it is true that it is shver tzu zain a Yid, hard to be a Jew, it is even harder to be a Jewish leader.  And so I wonder: why would intelligent, caring, reasonable Jews wish to take on this responsibility?  What is there about the opportunity to make this commitment that attracts talented people with other things to do in life to spend their time and effort in this contentious arena?

Why would you wish to engage in the constant give and take, the automatic Jewish flow of criticism and critique that aims itself at any and every leader of substance and integrity?

Perhaps the answer is also to be found in our Torah portion.  Not so much in the desire to see your enemies swallowed up whole by the earth before everyone's eyes, although that is an attraction.  No, it is in the understanding, as our portion ultimately confirms, that everyone is holy in this community of priests, but that legitimate, principled, selfless leadership is also absolutely necessary for us to achieve that holiness.  We need direction, and organization, and the practical details of everyday functionality to be taken care of so that we might grow spiritually in holiness.

What distinguishes Moses from those who rebel against him, like Korach, is his humble desire to do God's will, and to further the cause of oneness and sanctity in this world.  What he teaches us is that conflicts are not the goal—it is what happens after the resolution of that conflict that will define us and our meaning in this world.

May the work that our Temple board does to create the resources we need find success, so that we may continue to provide the venue and opportunity for holiness and spiritual growth.  And may the Holy One bless us all with the wisdom to know that our path lies not with Korach, but with Moses, and thus with God.

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