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Korach  5782            July 2, 2022

Shabbat Shalom,

     There certainly have been lots of things in the news that are worth talking about. We can start with the Supreme Court and its sudden shift to the right. What will it mean for Judaism if a football coach can pray at the 50-yard line after a high school game? What are the implications for Jewish schools if the State of Maine has to provide taxpayer money for religious schools in the state? I have already spoken about the Jewish angle to the Abortion issue, and I have nothing good to say about a ruling that allows people to carry concealed guns outside their home for “personal protection.”  Outside the court, there were the deaths of immigrants who were left in a sweltering truck by the side of the road in Texas. Then there are the war crimes of Russia in its illegal war with Ukraine. I guess if I were a news commentator, there would be enough to fill a two-hour show.

     It is hard to ignore the Congressional investigation of the coup on January 6, 2021, when it is Parshat Korach. Long before President Trump and his supporters planned to storm the Capital in Washington, DC, Korach, Datan, Abiram and On plotted to overthrow the leadership of Moses and Aaron at a critical time in the history of the people of Israel. Having been condemned to live in the desert for the next 39 years, and now moving away from the land promised them by God, Korach and his associates decide it is time for new leadership that will take them back to Egypt where everyone knows flowed with milk and honey. (Make Israel Great Again??) Korach accuses Moses of trying to enrich himself and that Aaron just wants to be High Priest so he will get all the donations from the people. Korach notes that his lineage is better than Moses and Aaron since he is the son of Levi’s first-born son and his associates are from the tribe of Reuban, the eldest of the twelve sons of Jacob. Clearly, they are more appropriate leaders for the people of Israel.

     The weird part of this coup of Korach, is that Moses never wanted to be in charge in the first place. Both he and Aaron did not want their jobs at all. God chose them and they had little choice but to do as God commanded. I am sure that Moses had a moment when he thought, “You want this job of leading this stiff-necked people, you can have it! I certainly do not need all this aggravation.” Moses of course, cannot say this. Moses was chosen by God and must defend God’s choice. There will be a showdown. At dawn the next day, Korach and his minions will offer incense in the Mishkan, and everyone will see who God will select. Half the rebels show up the next morning, the other half defy Moses and stay in the camp. Those that show up are struck down by a fire from God. Those who stay in the camp are swallowed up by the earth. The rest of the people are sent into a great panic. God is out to destroy them all. They are all terrified and refuse to follow a God who they fear can kill them all without a moment’s notice.

     On the one hand, the coup is quashed. As a result, all of the people of Israel are too terrified to ever question the leadership of Moses and Aaron again. But this violent episode, did not solve the problem of leadership in the camp. Rabbi Aviva Richman, in her Devar Torah for Yeshivat Hadar this week, writes, “The God of fire is the God Moshe knows. That is how he first “met” God at the burning bush. He spent forty days exposed to this divine fire at Sinai, on behalf of the people. It is understandable that Moshe sees his devotion to this fierce God as a source of liberation. But now it has become clear that unleashing God’s force into the peoples’ lives leaves them to think he (Moses or God) seeks their harm. 

     The people need a different proof of leadership, unlike these violent and destructive demonstrations. The second test must show the people that Aharon and his descendants were chosen to serve in the mikdash and that this is for the people’s benefit, not harm. It must emerge from an understanding on Moshe’s part that the people need to be acquainted with a different side of God, to set into motion adaptive change so that both sides begin to view religious leadership in an entirely new way.

     With all the discussion about the coup on Jan. 6 in the United States, it is hard to really get away from the disclosures that the Congressional Committee has uncovered. There was an angry mob that was heavily armed. President Trump wanted to be the leader of this mob as they stormed the Capital and tried to prevent the next president from taking power. President Trump was prevented from leading the mob by those who had the duty to protect him from harm but the images from the Capital that day of violence, destruction, and the threat of bodily harm to those who were in the line of succession gave us all pause as we watched the coup unfold. Our nation is now divided into two camps, those who were rooting for the police and those who were supporters of the rioters. A year and a half later they are still calling each other names as the truth of what happened that day is uncovered by the investigation.

     This is not the first time people unhappy with an election tried to stage a coup. After the Civil War, in southern states during the years of reconstruction, white militias tried to seize government buildings at a local and state level to prevent duly elected Black legislators from taking their seats in the government and to put white usurpers in their place. Sometimes the local police could not put down the riots and federal troops had to come in and restore order. These acts of intimidation of Black voters eventually led to the Jim Crow laws that locked Black Americans from voting for another 70 years.

     This is not the American way of electing representatives. After the Constitution was ratified, there was a first presidential election and General George Washington, was elected to be our first president. People were already calling him “King George” who they wanted to rule over them for the rest of his life. Washington would have none of it. He was elected to two terms in office and then told his supporters he was stepping down. Two terms in office for a president was enough he said and that became the tradition in this country until World War II. Presidents stepped down after two terms and a peaceful transition of power became the norm for all elections in this country. The United States would not tolerate a violent insurrection. Over the years this country elected some really crazy presidents, legislators, and representatives but our democracy stayed strong as long as elections mattered, and the winners would take their places peacefully after their opponents conceded their loss.

     There was no election among the People of Israel to appoint Moses as political leader and Aaron as spiritual leader. God made the appointment and the people accepted God’s rule, until Korach and his followers decided that they could do a better job and they rebelled not just against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, but the leadership of God as well. Rebelling against human beings is one thing, but it is always a bad idea to rebel against God. The violent insurrection was put down with violence, but the leadership was not secured. Moses and Aaron could not terrorize the people into following them as leaders. What was needed was a peaceful transition, a peaceful way to know that Moses and Aaron had been chosen by God so that all the people would know that leadership was “not by might and not by power” but by God’s spirit. The spirit of a God that was not fire and destruction, but of peace and understanding. A new kind of test of leadership is devised in our parsha. It is not an election as we know it, but it is a kind of election by trial.

     The leader of each tribe sends his tribal staff to the Mishkan. The staffs are collected and placed inside the Holy of Holies where God will select the leader of a tribe to be the spiritual leader of the people. Aaron’s staff represents the Tribe of Levi. All twelve staffs are left in the Holy of Holies overnight. The next morning, the people gather to see which tribe God has chosen. Eleven staffs are unchanged. But the staff of Aaron and the Tribe of Levi has become an almond tree, it has grown leaves and flowers and, as they watch, the flowers turn into almonds.

     Rabbi Richman notes, “In the test of Aharon’s staff, the people witness a miracle that is not centered around sudden violent death and punishment, but around blossoming and flourishing. (Bemidbar 17:23) ‘The next day Moshe entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aharon of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.’ Aharon’s staff blossoms, and then miraculously grows young almonds that ripen right in front of the people’s eyes... In the drama of Korah—the yelling matches, the intense monologues, and the violent death scenes—we might ignore the subtlety of the flowering staff as an alternative way to establish religious leadership. This is to our detriment. As we see in the people’s responses, leadership built on violence will only yield more fear and violence. The blossoming almond represents leadership that is about “wakefulness”—being alert to potential for growth at the earliest glimpse of possibility, and setting the stage for others to blossom in their own ways.

     It does not matter if the transition is in ancient days or just a year and a half ago. Violence only yields more violence. What is taken by force will eventually be overturned by force. Terror only begets more terror. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Remember, the Iron curtain in Europe did not fall to a military assault, but it fell to people who just stopped being afraid.

     An installation, an inauguration, even perhaps a coronation that is the result of people coming together to pick a leader that they believe will show them the best way forward, the most successful path to the future, such leadership will surely win the hearts and souls of those being led. Those who lead by force, must always maintain such a force, and live in fear that such a force could, someday be turned against them. Those who attain leadership by helping the people blossom and grow, such leadership will endure and always be remembered for a blessing.

     Adonai Oz L’Amo yiten, Adonai yivarech et Amo B’shalom – May God grant strength to our people, and may God bless our people with peace, as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783