I’m back…as they say. I’m back from a few incredible days in New York as my daughter-in-law, Heather, gave birth to our first granddaughter. Her name is Aya, and you can ask me about that; watching other grandparents and knowing the feeling I am experiencing, I know, I’ll always be happy to talk about Aya. She is healthy, her Mom is well and her Abba seems well suited for this new chapter in his life. And Tobi and I have loved being grandparents to Miles and now, we have a baby girl too!
It would be a little self-serving to give a sermon about my experiences over the week…as much as I was inclined to do so. But I’m back now, so what I’d like to do is talk about something my younger son, Noah, said to me, in a semi-jokinig way. I want to talk about Korach and I want to talk about Toby Levy, on this her last Shabbat.
A week ago, we were together, friends and family of Avi and Heather at the Simchat Bat. And as people gathered, I said to my daughter Gabrielle, who coordinated the event, maybe we should do the service NOW. I was standing next to my youngest son Noah. Gabrielle shot a glance at me…you must know that look from adult kids. She said, we already spoke about this…we are doing it in a half hour! She walked away and Noah, put his arm around me and warmly laughed and said…Ab, you’re going to have to learn. Your authority decreases a little as the generations move on. Everyone used to listen to you…but we still love you.
Oy, imagine…Long live the queen! I thought about this in connection to parshat Korach; that’s what I do. And I thought about it in terms of the roles we play. Some roles remain the same. Others change and such is life. As parents our advice is everything when our children are at their youngest and most vulnerable ages. But as they get older the conversations do change. We hope to remain relevant and influential. But we lose some control…and that is healthy. We hope that we are respected and honored. But we know most of the day to day stuff is no longer ours. Being able to respect that change of roles is critical to healthy and happy functioning…
The roles we play. They differ on our jobs and in our homes. I once knew a very significant businessman. He had a position of great influence and power. After a lunch he handed me his business card…Mr. Cohen, it read, Vice President of the “honey do club.”
He was president of a large corporation. At, home…he did what he needed to do as a husband.
It’s like that old joke that after the election when Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were defeated, Lieberman was said to be in some despair. He was at home when his wife Hadassah said to him, tenderly and warmly, Joe, don’t worry, here you will always be Vice President!
But playing appropriate roles, understanding the rules of the situation in the family or the community or the nation, is really important and a key to the functioning of any and every system. And I think that may be at the heart of this parshah which we read and the meaning of Korach’s rebellion.
Here’s the story. Korach, was a Levite, along with two sons of Eliab, decided to rise up against Moses with the support of 250 community leaders. Rebelling against Moses and Aaron, saying “You’ve gone too far. Why do you raise yourself up above us?”
When Moses heard this
, he fell on his face, saying to Korach and his followers, “Come morning, God will make known who God is and who is holy.” Then Moses added, “You have gone too far, sons of Levi. Is it not enough that God has set you apart from the community of Israel by having you perform the duties of the Lord’s Dwelling Place? Will you seek priesthood too? Truly, you rebel against God.”
Moses sent for the two sons of Eliab, but they would not come, saying it was unfair that Moses lord over them and force them to die wandering in the wilderness. Moses then told Korach and his followers to make a priestly fire and give incense offerings to God.
Then Moses said, “By the coming actions, you shall know it is the Lord who sent me and not my own doing. If these men die like all men normally do, then it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord creates a phenomenon so that the ground opens its mouth wide and swallows them and their property and they go to the grave alive, then you will know that these people have provoked God.”
When Moses finished speaking the ground under Korach, the sons of Eliab and their followers split, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses and all of their property. They and their belongings went down into the grave alive and the earth closed over them and they vanished.
Then a fire went out from God and it consumed the two hundred and fifty men of Korach’s followers who were offering incense.
My sense is that for generations this narrative was acceptable to the readers. But something changed. With the rise of democratic ideals, it’s easy for moderns to empathize with Korach. Maybe we too have pushed back against leadership, religious or otherwise, that has seemed too top-down. The modern-day legal system under which we live says that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law, and the ancient priestly system that placed Aaron and his sons at the top of the hierarchy may offend our democratic sensibilities.
Most of all, Korach’s cry — “all of the community are holy, and God is in their midst” — speaks to us on a spiritual level. Torah tradition teaches that when we build a space in our lives for God, God dwells among us (or within us). Being a leader doesn’t make one closer to God, and any leader who thinks that it does, is in need of doing some serious internal work.
But this story isn’t as simple as it may initially seem. Korach is identified as a son of Levi — part of the “secondary” priestly caste in the ancient system that placed Kohanim (priests) at the top of the ladder.
It’s possible that his rebellion wasn’t motivated by the kind of egalitarian impulse that moderns might admire, but by the desire to depose Aaron and his sons so that Korach and his sons could be at the top of the hierarchy instead. Seen through that lens, Korach and his followers attempted a coup that would have replicated the same top-down use of power against which we want to think they are rebelling. This time, however, Korach was on top. The rabbis saw Korach as a man filled with jealousy, after all, his father and Moses and Aaron’s father were brothers. Why couldn’t he be in charge?
I’m also struck by the language the Torah uses to describe the incident: The language is Korach and his followers “assemble against” Moses and Aaron. This isn’t a friendly conversation, a heart-to-heart about the direction the Israelites are taking in their wilderness wandering, or a question about leadership style and priorities. This is rebellion. Korach is a demagogue, speaking in the name of the people, but intending to gain personal power, it was about his EGO.
The core event is this challenge to Moses’ authority from the man from whom the Torah portion takes its name. Korach gathers a group of saying “You have gone too far, for all of the community are holy, and God is in their midst; why do you raise yourself above them?”
In response, Moses falls on his face before God. This is nothing more than expression of humility…Moses is in this position because he was called. He didn’t even want to be the leader. He coerced. Moses’ greatest attribute was humility…
Torah teaches us in this portion that when people jockey for power as did Korach and his followers, damage is done to the entire community. Torah shows us a model for leadership in Moses and Aaron, who act in the best interests of the people they serve, even though the community constantly blaming them for the punishment experienced by those who attacked them. And Torah offers us a path to healing from this kind of communal division.
When ugly behaviors have destroyed community, Torah calls us to center ourselves in a place where we can access the flow of holiness. Torah calls us to ensure that the community can be a safe place for everyone, a safe place for healing. Torah calls us to open our hearts to the flowering of new possibilities and community renewal that can unfold when we are safe, and our hearts are open, and we have trust in the One and not focused on communal conflict.
And so what we know is that there is a communal structure that is absolutely necessary for smooth functioning. And in that structure there is a defined authority, a ladder of leadership.
As a religious community we assert that everyone is equal before God. And everyone has equal access to Torah and Avodah…learning and worship. We are all in this together. No one is more important than another in the eyes of God.
And yet, for this to flourish we need a building and a staff with control, an administration, a budget and a program. And herein, decision making has a process. And when that process and the authority invested in leaders is destroyed, the system will break.
So in a synagogue…we have a board. And we have leaders. We need them to be wise, we need them to listen well to every congregant. We need them to understand the role of clergy and professionals. We need those who can work cooperatively and appropriately.
That takes strength…a patience
It takes time.
It takes respectful people…people respectful of others, the system, the past which brought them here…and it takes humble people which means that they are willing to listen, to compromise, to understand their own failings and limitations. To be a leader is not to be a “boss,” it is to be a model of mentchlekeit and decency.
And it works when the system demands that.
So Korach failed…and we inherit an unusual idea about leadership.
Isn’t it amazing that THE QUALITY that best described Moses’ person was humility.
There were other times where Moses was challenged. Once by his father in law Yitro, and he said, to be a leader doesn’t mean you do it all. Rather, to be a leader means that you are responsibility.
And Eldad and Miedad, two people who were ecstatically prophecyzing in the community…and Moses responded…we should all find that religious impulse…
So now, I turn to you Toby. You’ve set a wonderful path; you’ve raised the level of leadership. You work so well with others. You listened so well to those who complained and those who disagreed. You showed respect top my position and to Rabbi Englander and to every single person who worked here.
Together with Steve, our President in waiting, you governed wisely. And so I say…Go from strength to strength…Yasher Kocheich
And to you Steve, I know the kind of support you gave to Toby. I’ve seen you process hard issues. Most of all I have learned a lot about your values and your heart…and so I say, we welcome your leadership as President.
Toby, as Noah warned me, you will slip into your new role as past president well.
I am using the authority invested in me to tell you that we expect you here…
And Steve…May God bless you in this work. All of us will keep the Korach’s away. And all of us our committed to work with you bringing B’nai Torah…L’eilah U’leilah…higher and higher.
To who have served well and the new members of the Board…welcome. To those leaving the board…thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You have given precious time and effort to this congregation, and yes, to the people of Israel…