Parashat Korakh: Uprising Time

Five days before this Erev Shabbat, summer time began with the solstice; the perfect balance of day time and night time.

Erev Shabbat Korakh is the 103rd day of Coronavirus Time. We don’t yet know what that balance will be.

Thursday night Portland saw the thirtieth day of street demonstrations, among the street gatherings that have taken place all over the world against the police violence and brutality that led to the murder of George Floyd and far too many others. 

Jewish tradition has a question of balance for us in this time of uprising. It is this: what is the meaning of your anger? What is the purpose of your actions?

Two thousand years ago in a discussion on our parashat hashavua, the Rabbis distinguished between uprisings such as the one led by Korakh, who gives our parashah its name. Not unlike those of us who harbor differing opinions about the nightly clashes between marching protestors and the overarmed and undertrained Portland police department, our ancestors looked to the motivations of the uprising.

Are those who lead the protest focused on forcing change for the good? Or are they looking only to their own need?

The Rabbis developed a doctrine called makhloket l’shem shamayim, which we might best call “disinterested argument” although that translation certainly lacks the charm of “a dispute for the sake of heaven.” Either way, the question here is whether the one disputing is using their leadership for a noble purpose or a base purpose.

How do we know? Personal motivation cannot be judged as clearly as actions. The Rabbis conclude that the truth will out:

כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם.

אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. 

וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ: 

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; 

But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. 

Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. 

And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? 

Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation. 

Mishnah Pirke Avot 5.17

Our tradition has never condoned destruction for its own sake; neither in the police violence that has terrorized so many Black and Brown lives, nor in the responses of people who feel that they are unheard and dismissed, and so they turn to destruction. But how shall we judge those who decry vandalism of buildings or statues, and have yet to act to demand that Black Lives, human beings, must Matter more?

The commentaries and interpretations of the story of Korakh in our parashah recognize that the slogan of his uprising was a true statement: “all of the people are holy!” That is our banner as well, all of us who condemn murder at the hands of the police state.  Why then is Korakh’s uprising condemned?

Look closely. Korakh was already in power; a Levite of the Kehati family, already as close to the inner circle as possible, with enough access to the corridors of power that one has to wonder what more he could possibly have needed? The Rabbis see that Korakh wasn’t really leading a revolution; he only wanted access to even more power and prestige.

His was not a makhloket l’shem shamayim, and thus it was doomed to fail, even if there had been no spectacular, Biblical method of downfall. The cost of such a selfishly motivated uprising is, poignantly, the same as the good fight well fought: many innocent people are hurt in the process. 

It is inevitable that in a holy cause, a dispute for the sake of heaven, there will be some Korakh types involved. Our ancestors never made the mistake of condemning all uprisings simply because some are misguided, and all are painful. They knew that change does not come easily, and spoke of the hevlei hamashiakh, the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” which are inevitable when something is being born.

May we be clear sighted and compassionate despite the uproar, and learn to discern the holy within the tumult. It is there.

Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: Trust or Fail

In these days of many kinds of prayers, let us consider the nature of Jewish prayer. Jews pray in highly specific ways, teaching us by way of this mindfulness practice a Jewish ethics of existence.

The first kind of prayer we see demonstrated in our siddur, our makhzor and any other kind of prayer compilation is תהילה tehilah – praise. It is the expression of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “radical amazement” of being alive. The morning prayers, for example, remind us to be aware of and grateful for our body’s abilities, of just waking up alive.

The prayer of praise captures that moment when you stand on a mountain top and see the beauty of all that is, and know your place in it. That mountaintop is experienced in parenting, in friendship, in community, in love.

The second kind of prayer is בקשה, bakashah – seeking. It is to see the beauty from the mountaintop and seek the link to that beauty through the ethics and obligations of our days. The vision is wholeness, and the bridge we seek to build to it is the mitzvot of justice and kindness we are taught to fulfill.

Bridge-building is difficult and dangerous, marked by thankless effort, uncertainty and fear. This is true whether one lays bricks across a cavern or reaches out, step by step, to challenge injustice. The one unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine the most important building material of all: trust.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors had come so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance; it would be many years of wandering before that bridge would finally be built.

Only three weeks ago on Shabbat we marked Shavuot, the moment when our people stood at a mountain and saw, for once clearly, the meaning of their lives. That moment was marked by fire, by lightning and thunder and the blast of the shofar. It was probably terrifying. Such moments of naked exposure to truth probably always are.

From that mountaintop we have been privileged in these days to see a vision of justice for the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr taught us that the road is long and there are no guarantees that any one of us will get there. Not unlike the wilderness generation, many of us have not been taught to trust, and it is terrifying to recognize the might of the evil unleashed among those of us who are Black and Brown. 

On this Juneteenth of 2020, we are privileged to experience the presence of G*d in history and event. The building of the bridge to a better world has made some progress, and that brings us to our third kind of prayer: הודאה, hoda’ah – gratitude.

Little by little, each in our own way, we carry forward our people’s memory of the vision we had on the mountaintop: of community, of justice, and of wholeness. May we be true to it, and trust it in the uncertainty and fear of our days. 

Shabbat shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Naso: Lift Every Face

We have passed thirteen weeks of social isolation now; a most disconsolate tally, longer than our Sefirat haOmer count and much more uncertain. We try to remain patient, and struggle to contain our fears of contagion into vessels of reasonable size. Shabbat comes again, once more without the chance of seeing our Torah in our sacred space. Yet many of us have realized that it’s actually seeing each other that we miss the most. Zoom is a blessing, but only a window into each other’s spaces of isolation. We can’t really see each other’s faces; not the way we used to take for granted.

We have passed more than one week of social upheaval now; all over the United States and beyond, the movement to mourn Black lives lost to police violence in the United States draws more people in one place than we have seen since early March. In the days since we have seen the faces of our neighbors suffused with fear and with righteous anger. These faces, too, we do not see well enough if we only see them through a television screen.

Our parashat hashavua for this week is called Naso. It begins with a directive from on high:

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אש  naso et rosh, “take a census” (BaMidbar 4.22). The idiom in Hebrew is “count heads,” or, literally, “lift up the head.” 

Rabbinic commentary understands this to mean that when we take note of people, it’s not enough to count the bodies in the room; we are to take account of each human being, each unique face – it is to look each person in the eye.

There is a longstanding superstition which states that Jews don’t count each other, that it invites bad luck. One might say in this case that all bets are off when it’s G*d telling us to count, yet perhaps there’s something deeper we can learn: perhaps the backlash only comes when we sofer u’moneh people, counting them the way that HaShem is said to count us on Yom Kippur. We are not G*d, after all. If we look from a distance, without locking our eyes on those of the other, perhaps we are, indeed, bringing something evil upon ourselves and those we count.

When we naso “lift up the head” and look into the face, we have a sense of common humanity, of shared spirit, of real connection, that we are learning we can never have on Zoom nor through any kind of medium that stands between us and another. It is an evil thing, our tradition tell us, when we forget that.

On this Shabbat I urge you to take a deep breath, turn off the news and social media, and spend some time looking at the people in your life, those whose lives are presented to you, who move you, whom you love, and whom you don’t.

First, take a moment to really see someone with whom you share your isolation. Either in your imagination or in reality, look them in the eye. Refresh your vision; turn your gaze to appreciation. Name something that you see now that you couldn’t see at first glance.

Second, consider the faces of those whom you would condemn, fear, or otherwise feel distanced from in your life. Remember that they also have eyes, if we learn how to lift up our own faces to meet theirs. 

Finally, look in your mirror. See your self. Look with compassion for the simple, flawed, lovable human being you see there. Take a deep breath. 

Every life is a unique, precious, irreplaceable spark of the holy in the world.