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

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?