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 Zakhor: When a Lie is Right

The word Zakhor, which is the special name attached to this Shabbat before Purim, means “remember.” We are commanded to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, a historical enemy of our people who is seen recurring in those who have tried to eradicate the Jewish people from the earth: from Haman in the Purim story, to more recent villains, we see them as the personification of the evil we do to each other in human history.
The historian Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi wrote that it is a curious thing, to be commanded to remember to forget, for that is what we’re being told to do: forget hate, and work for the day when no one in the whole world with remember what that word means.
The battle against hate takes interesting forms. One of them is the use of a human stratagem which is all to often misused: the lie.
Consider if you will the following story from our ancient tradition, focusing upon Rabbi Meir, who lived in the Galilee during the Roman occupation (the time of the development of the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law).
Rabbi Meir used to teach Torah every Erev Shabbat. One evening his teaching went longer than usual, and a woman who came regularly to hear him came home late to find her husband waiting for her. He was angry and refused to hear her explanation, that she had been at Torah study, and her apology, having not wanted to miss the end of the lesson and, perhaps, to have seemed to be disrespectful to the teacher.
“I will not accept your explanation nor your apology,” he said to her, “unless you go back to that Rabbi and spit in his face.”
The woman refused, and the two of them did not speak for one week, then two, then three.
Her friends came to her and asked her to take them to hear the Rabbi’s Torah teaching. Rabbi Meir had heard the story, and when he saw her, he immediately said to her,
“I am suffering from an eye condition, and have been told that someone must spit in my eye to cure it. Would you mind doing so for me?”
The woman spit in his eye.
“Seven times,” he said. She did so.
“Now go to your husband,” said Rabbi Meir, “and tell him this: you told me to spit at him once, but I did so seven times.” (VaYikra Rabbah 9.9)
This is how great the obligation is to make peace, our Jewish tradition insists: sometimes you may have to work around people’s emotions by allowing them to believe they’ve won the argument even when they’re wrong. In other words, sometimes it’s right to lie. Jewish ethical tradition insists that lying is sometimes the only way to peace.
This kind of lying is employed, Hillel taught, when we praise all brides as beautiful, or that the thing you just bought is wonderful (even though I don’t really like it or think you got a good deal). This is lying for the sake of someone’s feelings – which is the first, foundational building block of a caring community. It is not even really lying as much as it is insisting that there is more than one standard for beauty, or for appreciation of a belonging.
Notice that Rabbi Meir isn’t getting anything out of this lie which he creates. If anything, he is retreating from the insistence on the truth of the situation, for there is something greater here, and that is the well-being of a human relationship.
Something greater than truth? Yes. According to a midrash, the truth is that human beings should never have been created, and G*d chose to ignore that truth in order to create us, despite all our capacity to destroy, for the sake of all our capacity to love.
Ethical Jewish lying may thus be defined by the following parameters:
1. it is not a lie for personal gain or avoidance of consequences
2. it respects that some situations are beyond the reach of cool, calm, considered logical truth
3. it therefore allows a meta truth to triumph over a situational challenge
Meir’s lie allows the truth of the relationship to continue. Not everything has to be said, and not every point has to be forced.
Another story in the Talmud attached to Rabbi Meir has him making peace between two friends who have argued. He goes to the first and tells him that the other misses her terribly and realizes that she is right. Then he goes to the other, who hears the same thing. While the friends might have said that this was a lie, it was a momentary lie, for the larger truth is that they were friends, and they did miss the friendship.
There is a final, humbling reality key to this kind of compassionate, loving lying if it is to work, which is found in the realization that we don’t know truth anyway. We only know the perspective we have, and there are, we are taught, 70 ways to understand every verse and every word of Torah – and, how much more so, the situations of our lives.
On this Shabbat, give someone the benefit of the doubt. Realize that the truth you believe you know is only your truth, not the truth. And consider whether you might be using a truth you think you know as a weapon, where we are commanded, above all, to love peace, and pursue it.