Shabbat Korakh: We Need Light Now

Things are going from bad to worse, worse that we thought they could get, in our parashat hashavua, called Korakh. Hundreds of Israelites, led by Korakh, rise up against the leadership. Hundreds of people die as a result, and – most horrifying – the situation at the end of the day is not fundamentally changed. We are still lost in the wilderness, still doomed to wander for a generation – and still angry.

These repeated cycles of rebellions put down, deaths of guilty and innocent alike, and growing discontent produces a certain demoralization for the survivors. And so we feel in these days, after a week of three shootings that we know about, three separate instances of gun violence that we know are connected. They are linked by our common sense that we are lost, and wandering through a wilderness of anger that grows with each tragedy.

“It produces a certain fatigue,” said Teressa Raiford, an organizer with Don’t Shoot Portland, on OPB’s Think Out Loud today. It makes you want to throw up your hands with a defeated sense of helplessness. And, more significantly, it makes one tend to move toward abandonment of the rest of the world for the sake of trying to keep one’s own loved ones safe. That way lies another generation of wandering, and we dare not take that road.

How did this happen? The Rabbis ask the same thing about Korakh’s rebellion. Perhaps considering the one will help shed light upon the other – and we need some light right now.

Korakh is Moshe’s cousin, a Levite just as thoroughly. He and the others who rebelled against Moshe’s leadership were passed over for positions of priestly authority. When G*d handed out the duties of the Levites, they were assigned chores of porterage, roles of singing Psalms, and, according to Divre HaYamim (the Book of Chronicles) the Korahites were also doorkeepers of the Mishkan, the holy space.

Korakh rebelled because, as he put it, “all the people are holy” (Numbers 16.3). He wasn’t wrong. So why does he die, along with those who rebelled with him? 

Some commentators find him arrogant: Korakh and those others with him should have accepted their lot in life. But I see his mistake as one of timing. Yes, all the people are holy, and his anger is genuine. But last week the Israelites experienced a terrible national trauma, and their ability to tolerate this uprising was seriously impaired. There could be no realistic attempt at rational discourse while they were still in the midst of mourning the loss of the Promised Land.

And so we are commanded by Jewish tradition: Do not try to console a mourner while her beloved dead is still before her.

Our United States society is plunged into mourning. We have lost, and are still losing, so much: our sense of safety, our trust in the public square’s security, our ability to see a way forward. We are doing terrible things to each other on a national scale. Even as the July sun, obscured by dark clouds, casts a gloomy darkness over us, the darkness of rising fear and anger and confusion is upon us. 

We have no clear answers for the healing of our society anytime soon, yet we cannot give in to helplessness or cynicism any more than we can rush to false conclusions. Yet our Jewish tradition offers us a powerful way to respond: light a candle.

Every erev Shabbat we are bidden to kindle the light of Shabbat at sundown. On this erev Shabbat, join me in lighting one extra: a light to shine against the darkness, a declaration that ner HaShem nishmat adam, “G*d sees by the light of the human soul” (Proverbs 20.27). Declare with me that every human soul increases the light of the world; every death brings darkness. Light an extra candle on this Shabbat in memory of a tragic death, among all those who are murdered by the violence in our midst.

And after Shabbat is over, and you have rested your soul, consider how you want to act. Because we must, if we would bring light to this darkness. This must be a summer of action for us: if not now, when? Here are three ideas to get you started:

*find out the Black-owned businesses near you, and choose them when you can

*sign up with SURJ (Stand Up For Racial Justice) and support them

*demand, agitate, and vote for gun safety laws

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