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Korach. July 6, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

In the Torah, it is called “The Great Rebellion” - Korach and his followers rebel against the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. There are so many reasons for this rebellion that modern commentators believe that it is a compilation of several rebellions. In the parsha, the common explanation for the rebellion is that after the incident of the spies, the people are disheartened because they are commanded to turn away from the Promised Land. The people are being punished for their lack of faith in God. They had allowed the spies to convince them that they could not take possession of the Promised Land. Now only their children will inherit the land and they are condemned to die in the wilderness. The people are therefore ripe for a change in leadership and there are some who are quick to take advantage of the situation.  Datan and Abiram are from the tribe of Reuven and believe that their tribe, descended from the firstborn of Jacob, should be the lead tribe in the march. Korach is from the tribe of Levi and wonders why he was not chosen as a leader.

Torah commentators throughout the ages have wondered about what was so wrong about Korach’s rebellion. The Torah only hints about what the real reason was for Korach challenging Moses. The fact is that many people challenge the authority of Moses. What makes Korach’s case so threatening to Moses, Aaron and God that the entire rebellious retinue has to be destroyed? Korach claims that Moses and Aaron are not chosen leaders, because all of the people of Israel are holy; they are not more holy than anyone else. Who elected Moses and Aaron to be leaders? On the surface, Korach is not wrong. All of the People of Israel are indeed holy. But God chose Moses at the Burning Bush and then commanded Moses to make his brother, Aaron, the High Priest. The people are expected to follow the leadership that God chooses. Still Korach is correct, any of the people of Israel could be chosen to be a leader.

My good friend in Florida, Rabbi Michael Gold, notes that if all Korach wanted was equality for everyone then there would not have been a problem. But Korach has to build up his position by tearing down Moses. Human dignity is the fundamental value that Korach violates. Every person has a right to have leadership listen and react to alternate points of view. Every suggestion must be valued because of the value of the person making the comment. Or as we might say today, it is okay to have different political points of view, but it is not okay to devalue and demonize those who have different points of views than we have.

Korach is quick to tell Moses about all the mistakes that he has made, but Korach is not correct in denigration Moses himself. One of the most important parts of a democracy is that we are allowed to question our leaders. Even the Torah understands that nobody is infallible; we all make mistakes. It is important that we call or write to our representatives when we have ideas that might help them lead better. What we should not do is to denigrate the other person. Just because someone made a mistake, does not mean that they are a bad person. It is important never to forget that our leadership does want the same things we want, a better country, better laws and a better society. We may disagree on how to achieve these things, but we should not call into question the integrity of those who have different opinions than we do. Each of us is entitled to the dignity of our being a human being. It is important to remember that we can’t build ourselves up by tearing down someone else.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein in Jerusalem takes a different approach. According to the Midrash, Korach asks Moses some questions. “Does a garment made entirely of blue thread need tzitzit on its corners?” Moses answers that of course it does. Korach goes on, “a garment that is entirely blue is not kosher but one blue thread in the corner makes it okay to wear; that is just silly. What about a house that if full of Torah scrolls, does that house require a mezuzah on the door?” Moses replies that of course it does. Korach goes on saying, “a house full of Torah scrolls still needs one small passage attached to the doorpost; that is just silly.”   Rabbi Silverstein notes, that there is good logic in Korach’s thinking. Why does a totally blue garment need a single blue thread to be kosher? Why does a house full of Torah scrolls need a few verses attached to its door frame? Why have only one holy person in charge when everyone is holy? Everyone should have a say in how to run the Mishkan.

But a good leader, Rabbi Silverstein reminds us, is one that considers all sides of an issue and makes a good, well-reasoned decision. Korach does not even try to be balanced in his approach. Says Rabbi Silverstein, “Our tradition requires one to carefully consider the merits of both sides of an argument, something Korach does not even attempt. It also requires us to treat an opposing argument, and the opposition itself, as being at least as sincere as our side. Leaders make mistakes and people go through hard times; it is in these moments that popular demagogues like Korach seize on people’s frustration and try to take power. They want people to think that only they know all the answers; only they can be trusted, everyone else is either evil or naive.”

The lessons of Korach are clearly lessons for our own time. The Torah is teaching that we should not have too much faith in our leaders nor too little trust. We are being instructed to use our minds to determine the best course of action. This is what it means to live in a democracy. If we are given a choice as to who are leaders should be, we need to make sure we have the information necessary to make a good decision. There are no shortcuts to finding good leadership. Democracy is hard work; and taking shortcuts in finding leadership can undermine the very freedoms that we value so much.

Eric Liu, in his recent TED talk, maintains that “Democracy works only when enough of us believe democracy works. It is at once a gamble and a miracle. Its legitimacy come not from the outer frame of constitutional rule, but from the inner workings of civic spirit. … That’s because democracy is one of the most faith-fueled human activities that there is.”

We watch debates and news shows and news commentaries trying to understand the differences between candidates that will someday be up for election. But in the end, what others say about the candidates is only secondary to what we are looking for in how our government should run. Since we know that nobody will do a perfect job leading our country, we set up the checks and balances, different legislating chambers and a division of power to make sure that in the end, everyone still is acting in the best interests of the people who elect them. In the end, we can’t rely on laws to keep us free; we have to have faith in the intentions of our leadership. As Eric Liu notes: “a free-for-all is not the same as freedom for all. Anyone who thinks that they are the same is selling us a con job”.

Eric Liu, in his presentation notes that he is often asked about why he talks about faith in our government. He says, “Sometimes I am asked, even by our seminarians: Isn’t it dangerous to use religious language? Wouldn’t that just make our politics even more dogmatic and self-righteous? But this view assumes that all religion is fanatical fundamentalism. It is not. Religion is also moral discernment, an embrace of doubt, a commitment to detach from self and serve others, a challenge to repair the world. In this sense politics could stand to be a little more like religion, not less.”

The United States does not allow government to regulate religion. But it does not ban religious people from applying their morals to the workings of government. Laws that are immoral should be protested. Justice should be pursued. We need to ask ourselves the religious question of what we should be responsible for in society and what should we be willing to risk losing for the sake of making society better? What should be a moral way to regulate guns? What would be appropriate in handling refugees on our border? What does fairness demand us to do in giving human rights to others? What are the common ideas that we share and what are the ideals that form the foundation of our society? Everything is based on our values and having values and standing up for them is the most basic form of civic awareness. Eric Liu concludes his TED talk saying, “Those of us who believe in democracy and believe it is still possible, we have the burden of proving it. But remember, it is no burden at all to be in a community where you’re seen as fully human, where you have a say in the things that affect you, where you don’t need to be connected to be respected. That is called a blessing, and it is available to all who believe.”

Korach only believed in himself. Moses had the humility to hear what the people were saying, and he always tried to give his best to the people every day. The Torah says that God opened the mouth of the earth and it swallowed Korach alive. I worry less about the earth opening up to swallow us, nor do I worry much about lightning strikes. I like to think that Korach was swallowed up by his own egotism that finally showed the people who Korach was and so they rejected his leadership. God eventually showed the people that Moses and Aaron had God’s blessing.

May God bless us with leaders who are humble and committed to doing what is just and right for all people in this land. May they pursue Justice on behalf of all residents, and may they bring peace and prosperity to our land. That is the kind of leadership we need and those are the leaders that we will need to find. May God help us choose our leaders wisely as we say ….     Amen



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 6, 2019.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780