Rabbi Charley Baginsky, 1 July 2016
This is one of those portions that I, and many much wiser than I, struggle with. Whenever I have to write a sermon on this parasha I find that I am re-reading the portion again and again, and each time I come to a different conclusion. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said; “turn, turn and turn it again for everything is in it”.
The book of Numbers has often been called the book of complaining by rabbis searching for a common theme within the book. But complaining is too simple a word for the events of Numbers. Yes, the people do cry out and moan. Yes, they do recall their days in Egypt as happy ones, so disillusioned are they by the wilderness. However, complaining does not do justice to the actions of the people as they drive Moses and God mad with their constructed, illusionary vision of how their past of slavery in Egypt was so much better than their current desert reality.
Pirket Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers) states; “Any dispute where the disputants are arguing toward the name of heaven, these are the disputes that will endure. Any dispute where the disputants are not arguing toward the name of heaven, these disputes will not endure. What is an example of a dispute where the disputants argue toward the name of heaven? Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of disputes where the disputants do not argue toward the name of heaven? Korach and his minions.”
I will try not to make any Brexit analogies here….
In this week’s portion, Korach argues that all the community is holy, and therefore the priests cannot have a monopoly over the priestly role. In response, the earth opens up and swallows Korach with of all his followers. It is one of the most fascinating and problematic stories of the Torah.
In January 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote these famous words to James Maddison: “I hold that a little rebellion now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical”.
It is clear in this portion that the Torah is condemning the actions of Korach. After all, he and his 250 followers perish. However, his sons survive. Actually they more than survive, they become prominent Levitical singers and many of their poems are included in the Book of Psalms.
Rabbis of the past overcame this strange outcome by suggesting that the sons repented and represent a shining example of true teshuva. However, I struggle with this, as the sons are remembered in their father’s name. Maybe the Torah does not devalue rebellion itself, but rather rebellion that is fought in the wrong way. After all Korach’s argument seems to be a fair one, he is claiming that all people are holy. An argument that mirrors God’s own words – “you shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy.”
Surely Korach is a character that we, as Liberal Jews, can identify with – a proponent of democracy, grassroots activism and empowerment. The whole people are holy, says Korach, the power should not be consolidated into the hands of the elite – all of us should be able to draw near to God.
This Shabbat we gather together, nearly 300 Liberal Jews, for this year’s Biennial Conference with the theme; “Thinking Outside the Book”. As we enter this creative, dynamic and inspiring weekend, I hope we will think like Moses – like a leader and thinker who asks ourselves what God wants from us, but remembering to do it in the right spirit – with care and compassion for others. We can also be a little like Korach – using our voices to challenge what everyone assumes is the way things have to and should be.
Liberal Judaism has never been static, but it will take people who care about and love the movement, to challenge us to continue to grow, develop and remain at the cutting edge of a vibrant Judaism.
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