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 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

parashat hashavua Korakh: Makhloket

Our concept for the week is makhloket, which means “argument” or “disagreement” but comes from a root that can also mean “slippery”. It is a Hebrew word with impressive pedigree. In the Talmud, our Sages explain that there are two kinds of makhloket, that which is “for the sake of heaven” and that which is “not for the sake of heaven.”

Any makhloket which is for the sake of heaven will endure; that which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure.

What is a makhloket which is for the sake of heaven? that of Hillel and Shammai.

What is a makhloket which is not for the sake of heaven? that of Korakh.   (Avot 5.17)

So who is Korakh and why is our parashat hashavua, our Torah reading of the week, named after him? We see that by the time the Rabbis of the Talmud want to illuminate a form of disagreement, they use Korakh as a prime example.

Korakh leads a rebellion against Moshe. His protest against Moshe’s leadership, as the Torah records it, is:

“You take too much upon you. Look: all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and G-d is among them. Why then do you lift yourselves above the assembly of G-d?”(Numbers 16.3).

This sounds reasonable enough. G-d calls upon all the Israelites to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” in Exodus; Korakh is protesting, it seems, against too much totalitarian control of the people. Korakh speaks high-sounding words here – why should our tradition call his argument a makhloket without merit?

The answer is because Korakh’s argument was disingenuous. He didn’t really want to promote democracy. As a member of the Levite tribe himself, close kin to the families chosen to be priests, Korakh wanted a piece of that action for himself. He was using an argument that sounded far more noble than his actual intentions were. This manipulation caused other, non-Levite Israelites, to be encouraged that they too might rise to leadership; 250 of them joined Korakh.

The Torah records that the rebellion ended when the earth itself opened her mouth and swallowed up Korakh and all his fellow protesters. This may seem like a harsh punishment, so I encourage you to think of it differently. Korakh’s argument had no grounding.

Makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement for the sake of a higher cause, can be difficult but is always praiseworthy. Anything less is hurtful, dismissive of the real stakes, and devoid of any positive outcome. When you are next involved in a makhloket, ask yourself: is it truly for a worthwhile cause, or are you actually veiling lesser feelings and needs? If so, is there a way you can take a step back and consider your grounding, and what the lack of it might cost you – and others?