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Parshat Korah  June 21, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

During the time of this pandemic, I have taken advantage of our time together to open discussions about issues in the Jewish community to let everyone have a chance to speak what is on their minds so we can learn from each other, and I can tailor my message to where you find yourselves today. I have greatly enjoyed these discussions. I know that not everyone is ready to speak up about their feelings on many of these topics, but I do think that more than my own opinions, the range of opinions we have expressed have given all of us something to think about.
Many times, I went into a discussion looking to discuss one thing only to find you guiding me to a new topic I may or may not have considered before. I hope I was able to teach everyone over the past year or so we were out of our building. I know that I have learned a lot from all of you. 

It is good to be back in our building but the restrictions we still are working under because of the pandemic are now making it hard to have discussions. Rather than just speaking out, we need to leave our seats and stand in front of the congregation and voice our ideas. That is a high threshold to cross. So, for the next weeks I will have to go back to speaking rather than discussing. But I do hope that when you gather with your friends after the service, you will still discuss my words and maybe they will spark some new ideas. 
My hope is that we will soon be able to get back to the give and take of our discussions. For now, as every day during this pandemic, we will make do with what we have….

This week, the Torah takes on politics. It is the story of Korah, the Levite who was not content to be a follower of Moses and Aaron but wanted to be the leader himself. In past ages, Rabbis saw Korah as a populist, speaking on behalf of all the people who were tired of Moses’s leadership. It was a prime time for a political revolution. The first attempt to enter the Promised Land was a fiasco. The people were too afraid to enter the land even though God promised them victory. So, they were condemned to die in the wilderness and the next generation would conquer the land. Now they have turned away from the land of promise and are heading back into the desert. Why not take out all the frustration and disappointment on Moses and Aaron? Korah is speaking for the people. 
Except he is not. What is clear to us, we who live in an age of populist authoritarians, we understand that while leaders like Korah sound like they want to bring power to the people, in the end, all they really want is power. They don’t care about the people at all, they only care about their own power and maybe the wealth they can collect while they can. Korah, is neither poor nor powerless, but he is power hungry. Moses is known for his humility and not wanting to take on the job of leading Israel. Ilana Kurshan, writing for the Torah Sparks from the Conservative Yeshiva, writes: “… our parsha points to a fundamental difference between Korah and Moshe’s models of leadership. One devalues the common good for selfish ends, thereby pandering to our basic instincts; the other elevates the common good to a central place in society thereby upholding our aspirations. “ 

I don’t think this is a subtle point of difference, but for some people it seems to be. How can we tell what is inside the head of those who are seeking political office? After all, it takes a certain amount of self-confidence and pride to run for office. One has to be self-assured if you are asking people to vote for you. Politicians have told voters for years what the people want to hear. Who does not want lower taxes, fewer rules and regulations, and more time with their family? How easy is it to tell the people what they want to hear when running for office? “The old leadership is old and out of touch, I will be the one to listen to your concerns.” This is standard politics. 
And yet, there is a difference. “I will be the one to listen to your concerns” is not the same as “Listen only to me, I know your concerns.” We may not know what is inside the heads of those we are electing but they can’t know what is inside our heads either. This is about more than the ego of the politician. The Talmud teaches that without ego, without the evil drives within us, we would not be creative, we would never advance in the world. Even procreation would cease if we did not have our share of ego.  But too much ego leads to jealousy. The Biblical commentator, Bachiya ibn Pakuda teaches that jealousy is an illness that has no cure. When we have an insatiable jealousy even when all of our desires are fulfilled, we will still be unhappy. We will always want more. 

So how do we tell which politician is right for us? How can we choose who to vote for? If we can’t trust our eyes and ears, how can we find the right leadership for our communities? Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, the Executive Director of the Handel Center for Ethics and Justice, wrote for JTS this week: “This has been a polarizing year for our society. Many of our systems are broken. Times such as these call on each of us to actively participate in building the kind of society in which we feel called to live. I have been inspired by the Mussar tradition as I consider how to react …”
Mussar is not about understanding other people, Mussar is about understanding ourselves. Before we can choose our leaders, we need to understand ourselves and what kind of a society we wish to build. The Torah teaches us the difference between Moses and Korah. We know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. But in real life there is not Torah to show us who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat. What we see is a reflection of who we are inside. We get the leaders we deserve. 

If your idea of a good society is one where you are out to get all that you can out of others, if your idea of a society lets you get ahead by holding back all those who would compete with you, then you will like authoritarian populists. In this week’s parsha, we meet two of Korah’s fellow rebels, Datan and Abiram who are identified by the Midrash as the two slaves Moses found fighting the day after he killed the Egyptian slave master. Moses tried to break up their fight and they reply, “Who made you chief and ruler over us?” They seem to always assume that Moses is only out to take power for himself. This is how they see leadership and they can’t imagine that Moses might be motivated by justice, not by might but by right. They follow Korah because they can only see leadership from this self-aggrandizing, self-serving point of view.

The Mussar tradition has us look inside ourselves to find what is godly and to remove all that might over feed our ego. Mussar teaches us that we always have choices to make, not just who will be our leader, but what kind of a person will I be? What kind of a parent will I be? What kind of a friend will I be? How do the decisions I make, make me more Godly, more in tune with what God expects from me? If I am in tune with who I am and who I want to be and if I can make better choices as to how to live my life, then I will also want to choose leaders who think like me. That may be a bit harder to know going into an election but if we can make good choices about how we live our lives, we can make good choices about which are the right leaders for our society. Moses, the Torah teaches, was the humblest man in the world. Moses understands that a leader is leading only when the people are following. Leadership is not about himself, but about the people who he leads. 

Rabbi Ruskay goes on the write, “We are living at a time with numerous threats and challenges and each of us must be involved in repairing the world. Informed by Korah and his followers and Moses, I invite us to ask ourselves the following questions daily: What is really in my heart? Have I communicated it in conversation with God, laying my heart bare and honestly speaking my yearnings into being? … Did I regularly make choices today that advance my connection to God? And how am I managing humility?

When we know who we are and what we want out of life, we will be in a much better position to choose the leaders who we want to take us to our goals. This is not something that can be done neither early nor late in an election cycle. It is a task that we must work on every day that we are alive. If we do the work inside our hearts and minds, the choice of leadership will become much easier and less complicated. Ilana Kurshan sums it up in the different ways Moses and Korah die. She writes, “Perhaps it is fitting that Moshe dies high up on the summit of Pisgah, whereas Korah’s band is swallowed into the earth. As our Parasha reminds us, great leaders like Moshe do not direct attention to themselves but focus our gaze upwards – on values and ideals that lie far above the petty concerns of Korah and his followers.” 

If we look at life by looking down to the earth, if we find ourselves wallowing in the mud of conspiracy theories and lies, we will find leaders who will help us live in that mud. On the other hand, if we live our lives looking up to the values and ideals that we hold dear, we will find leaders that help us look all the way up to those heights. Those are the leaders who are not themselves stars but who point out to us the way so that we can aspire to the stars. 

May God guide us on paths of justice, truth, and starlight as we say, Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784