Shabbat Va’Era: Reveal Yourself

In last week’s parashat hashavua we witnessed a rapid transition in which the people of Israel went from a good life in Exile to a persecuted, miserable slavery. At the end of the  parashah Moshe, after his first attempt to organize the people of Israel, is discouraged.

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל י-ה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אד-נָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moshe went back to HaShem and said: ‘HaShem, why are you making this situation worse? why would You send me, if this is the outcome?

וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.

Ever since I spoke to Pharaoh in Your name, he has dealt harshly with this people, and You! You have not saved Your people.’ (Ex. 5.22-23)

After the marching and rallying of last week came the flurry of destructive executive orders. Why is it getting even worse? we might cry out as Moshe did.

Generations of commentary have sought to understand our own efforts for justice by studying this passage from our Torah. At the beginning of our parashah for this week, G*d replies:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי י-ה.

G*d spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘I am HaShem;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי י-ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as a mighty G*d, but by My name YHWH I did not reveal to them. (Ex. 6.2-3)

The great Torah interpreter Rashi noticed the order of Names of G*d: First Elohim, a generic word for G*d also used to refer to other gods, is a word associated in Jewish tradition with G*d’s Judgment, where the Four Letter Name which we refer to by using the word HaShem (“the Name”) is associated with G*d’s attribute of mercy.  A later commentator, the Piacezsner Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto (who wrote during the Holocaust), carries this insight forward to create a teaching that goes like this:

Harsh judgment is not always the way to bring people together; to get people to listen to you, and maybe even hear you, takes gentleness, kindness, and mercy.

We must open multiple fronts, my friends and companions in Resistance. Especially in #JewishResistance, we will be most effective and most true to ourselves and our tradition when we follow Isaiah in “crying out with full voice, making our voices a shofar” (58.1) and sometimes we must quietly speak our truth and listen openly to that of others. This tradition in Judaism is called makhloket l’shem shamayim; it challenges us to act not only with justice, but also with mercy, as a moment may demand.

We are taught that we are made in the Image of G*d and we are to be as G*d. Here that means to follow G*d’s example and reveal not only the Judgement side of ourselves, but also the side that shows Mercy, Compassion, and Love. It is as the signs of the marchers say: it is not hate against hate that wins; Love conquers Hate. 

It took the Israelites a long time to leave Egypt. For us as well, the road ahead is long. We won’t be marching every part of it – sometimes we’ll be resting, coming together for reinforcement, meditating on what is happening both without and within, and finding our balance with each other’s help. 

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?