How not to be like Korakh: the wisdom of humility

Do not separate yourself from the community – Hillel, Pirke Avot 2.5

This week’s Parashah records a paradigmatic moment of leadership disagreement. While most Israelites are consumed with the daily challenges of life – the tent is tilting, we have to pack for the move, where is the goat? – leadership is comparably, appropriately engaged with the logistics and messaging of moving the Israelites forward on their journey.

One of the leadership, a Levite named Korakh (a cousin of Moshe, Miriam and Aaron), declares that the rest of the leadership is irreparably compromised. He challenges Moshe in front of all the people. The people take sides. Moshe loses confidence in himself and his ability to lead.

It’s an important question for meaningful, intentional community: when should we step forward with confidence in our own, lone voice? When should we learn the humility of submitting our own ego needs to a greater cause?

Korakh’s story ends with his argument invalidated in a rather spectacular way, for which HaShem is usually charged with heavy-handedness. I want to suggest another reading, based on a comparison with a famous story from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 2.9). In it, two Rabbis who are both significant Jewish community leaders have disagreed on the proclamation of the New Moon, thereby affecting the date of Yom Kippur. 

Upon hearing that Rabbi Yehoshua had challenged his ruling, Rabban Gamliel sent a message to him: I decree against you that you must appear before me with your staff and with your money on the day on which Yom Kippur occurs according to your calculation; according to my calculation, that day is the eleventh of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur. 

*To travel with one’s staff and money on Yom Kippur is forbidden. Rabban Gamliel, who is the titular head of the Jewish people, is inviting Rabbi Yehoshua to make a choice: either defy his authority publicly (and cause a split in the Jewish people), or submit to Rabban Gamliel’s ruling.

Rabbi Akiva went and found Rabbi Yehoshua distressed that the head of the Great Sanhedrin was forcing him to desecrate the day that he maintained was Yom Kippur. In an attempt to console him, Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Yehoshua: I can learn from a [Torah] verse that everything that Rabban Gamliel did in sanctifying the month is done, i.e., it is valid. As it is stated: “These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, sacred convocations, which you shall proclaim in their season” (Leviticus 23:4). This verse indicates that whether you have proclaimed them at their proper time or whether you have declared them not at their proper time, I have only these Festivals as established by the representatives of the Jewish people. 

*The ingenious Rabbi Akiva, who can interpret things other people cannot even see, teaches his colleague that “you shall proclaim” can be understood to indicate that whenever the Jews proclaim the holy day, that is the proper time of the holy day, even if it’s demonstrably wrong, even for HaShem. 

Community cohesion is more important that being right.

Rabbi Yehoshua then came to Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas, who said to him: If we come to debate and question the rulings of the court of Rabban Gamliel, we must debate and question the rulings of every court that has stood from the days of Moses until now. As it is stated: “Then Moses went up, and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). But why were the names of these seventy Elders not specified? Rather, this comes to teach that every set of three judges that stands as a court over the Jewish people has the same status as the court of Moses. Since it is not revealed who sat on that court, apparently it is enough that they were official judges in a Jewish court. 

 *Rabbi Yehoshua is not yet sure, so he goes to another valued colleague, who makes the institutional argument: don’t undermine the authority, because if you do, you undermine the entire system.

Community cohesion is more important that the personality and behavior of the leader.

When Rabbi Yehoshua heard that even Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas maintained that they must submit to Rabban Gamliel’s decision, he took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavne to Rabban Gamliel on the day on which Yom Kippur occurred according to his own calculation. Upon seeing him, Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head. He said to him: Come in peace, my teacher and my student. You are my teacher in wisdom, as Rabbi Yehoshua was wiser than anyone else in his generation, and you are my student, as you accepted my statement, despite your disagreement.

The two leaders here demonstrate makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement which is for a greater cause than their own feelings, and which does not hold grudges, for the sake of the larger community they both serve. Thus the entire Jewish community observed Yom Kippur on the same day. A community already in turmoil after the trauma wreaked upon them by the Roman empire’s destruction of Jerusalem was not further exacerbated. 

Korakh could never see beyond his own sense of outrage: he was right, even if he caused damage to the identity formation of the Israelite people at this delicate stage. And, fittingly, he himself was literally swallowed up by the undermining of order – the chaos – that he invited.

Truly, Rabbi Yehoshua was wise. Perhaps he was thinking about Korakh. May we learn wisdom from both Gamaliel and Yehoshua, whose disagreement did not swallow up innocent people and destroy community morale; it encourages us to believe that we can learn to disagree deeply, yet love and respect each other as we wish ourselves to be loved and respected.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shelakh: Trust

Perhaps the undermining of the idea of trust began for many of us with the cultural saturation in the U.S. of the slogan “trust, but verify.” Or perhaps it is an internal result of the persecutions Jews have endured for many centuries. No matter the cause, the lack of ability to trust – to suspend suspicion and cynicism – is inimical to spiritual life. It is also directly destructive of Jewish community.

In our parashat hashavua we see the effect of anger, discomfort, and fear on the first Jewish community’s ability to trust. That is to say, they couldn’t. Poised on the edge of what they said they wanted, the Jewish people were unable to find within themselves what it took to take a step together, in trust that they would be all right in the uncertainty of the step. 

From that day to this, life keeps sending us the lesson that spiritual life demands trust. Yet so little in our daily life encourages it! Yet we are not the first to face such a challenge. One of the rewards of being part of a community is to learn about others who have struggled to learn trust – both in ourselves and our capacity, and, relatedly, in those who share our path with us.

To be unable to trust, our parashah shows us, is to remain in Egypt. It is to be a slave: to one’s fear, to one’s past patterns, to one’s isolation. 

The opposite of spiritual slavery is not safety; it is not making it “home.” It is knowing that one is not alone even when one is unsafe, wandering in uncertainty, afraid of tomorrow. The opposite of spiritual slavery is the kehillah kedoshah, the community that becomes holy because those who are part of it are able to trust each other with their lives and the meaning of their lives.

Without trust in ourselves and each other, we cannot sustain meaningful community.

Trust, correctly understood, is not about passively expecting a Divine presence to care for us. It is also not about assuming that the other with whom one disagrees is correct. It is about letting go of the mistaken idea that one can control the world – when, truly, all we can control is our response to it, as the Talmud teaches:

One who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith. 

– Talmud Bavli Sotah 48b

Bitakhon (“security” in modern Israeli Hebrew) is an important ethic in Judaism. Learning the power of trust in oneself and one’s capacity, when it leads to trusting others appropriately within one’s community, is also a source of strength.

This type of confidence was so important to Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horowitz, the founder of the Novardak school of Mussar (19th-20th century, Lithuania), that he would give his students drastic challenges so they could grow in bitakhon

One student was afraid of the dark. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel instructed him to spend the night in the cemetery saying psalms. Another student was afraid of being humiliated. To him, the rabbi gave the challenge of going into a bakery and asking for nails and into a hardware store and asking for bread. 

The point of both these challenges was to condition the students to have bitakhon and realize that nothing harmful would happen to them if they faced their fears. The students of Novardak went on to found over 100 yeshivot throughout Eastern Europe, withstanding tremendous opposition and threats from Russian authorities. (Bitakhon)

Trust is not easily learned when one has been hurt. Thus community life is difficult, often marked by disappointment. Those who engage in community organizing and relationship development know that the unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine trust, because it is the most important connective tissue of all.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors came 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. They remained slaves.

The spiritual path is not one of arrival, but of one day at a time. May we learn to wander not alone, not enslaved by our past fears, but together, with trust in each other. The wandering will still be uncertain, but the path will be so much more beautiful.