Parashah Ponderings

Prayer as an act of transformation

Parashat Korach 5781 / פרשת קוֹרַח
Torah Portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32

Jewish worship is supposed to be transformational. People come to services on Shabbat, holy days and on weekdays for many reasons, but they are not always aware that Jewish prayer is an active experience that changes them, whether they want to change or not. If you leave a Friday night service the same as when you entered the synagogue that evening, you didn’t really pray.

At the heart of the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefilah, is the root pallel, meaning something like “to execute judgment, clarify, and decide.” What is the object of our judgement, clarification or decision-making? We are. Our selves. In fact, the word for “to pray,” l’hitpallel, is reflexive, suggesting that prayer is an act of self-judgment, self-clarification, an act of deciding who we are and where we stand in relation to God, Israel, Torah and the rest of the world. One is inherently changed by virtue of achieving this heightened awareness.

No human being is entirely perfect, but prayer helps us change and improve. Prayer provides us with time and space to look both deep within ourselves and to look far beyond ourselves toward the realm of mystery, Divinity and infinitude to discern how we can become less imperfect. We enter the prayer space with whatever thoughts and feelings we bring — a hodgepodge of concern, gratitude, worry, contentment, despair, joy and sadness — and, if we’ve been intentional and present in our prayer, we leave having taken a step, even if imperceptible, toward putting everything in order.

As a reminder of why we come to pray, our synagogue’s aron kodesh (Holy Ark) is adorned with the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel hammered into sheets of copper. To understand how this beautiful object of ritual art comes to inform our worship, one need only look at Parashat Korach, our Torah reading this week. 

Parashat Korach tells the tragic tale of rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron by the Levite Korach and the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On. As Rabbi Charlie Scwhwartz of Hillel International writes in his commentary to Parashat Korach on, “Parashat Korach is a chaotic mess. Within the 95 verses of this Torah portion are multiple active rebellions accompanied by multiple acts of divine punishment, all intertwined in a confusing and complicated narrative…” In the midst of all the chaos, Moses directs Korach and his followers to appear before God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, each with an offering of incense in his fire pan. (As custodians of the Tabernacle, the men would each have possessed a fire pan used to gather up the charred remains of sacrifices burnt on the Tabernacle’s altar.) At the moment the rebels gather, God punishes them by consuming them in fire. 

What became of the fire pans, which had been consecrated for service in the Tabernacle? God speaks to Moses, telling him to instruct Eleazar the priest to “remove the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred — and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel” (Num. 17:3). Then we read that Eleazar “took the copper fire pans” and did as God had bidden.

The Torah specifies that the pans should be “a warning to the people of Israel,” but they serve another purpose as well. Later in the Book of Numbers we find out that “the sons of Korach did not die” (Num. 26:11). In fact, Korach’s descendents go on to compose half a dozen Psalms, one (Psalm 47), which we read before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and another (Psalm 49) that is traditionally read in a house of mourning. Though Korach may have instigated a deadly rebellion against Moses, Aaron and, by extension, God, his descendants chose a different path. Perhaps they were not rebellious to begin with. No matter, the legacy of Korach’s lineage does not end with his fateful quarrel. Rather, it ends with acts of faith, piety, trust, and celebration of God’s greatness. And so, the copper fire pans that become part of the altar also remind us of the power of teshuvah (return, repentance), the ultimate proof of humanity’s power to transform itself into something better than it has been and is.

Many synagogues incorporate copper into their arks, Torah reading tables, and other ritual objects. By doing so, the copper does more than complement the synagogue’s decor. It stands as a reminder that we are all capable of becoming better than we are, of becoming less imperfect, if you will. We are all capable of adding holiness into the world, just like the descendents of the rebellious Korach. Even more, because we see the copper before us as we pray, it reminds us to use this time of prayer to look within and to look beyond and to begin our transformation in that moment. May we all realize whatever change we seek.

Parashah Ponderings

Running to Save the World

 Korachפרשת קורח

 Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” And they fell upon their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer, and put fire in it from the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly to the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for anger has come out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague had begun among the people; and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped. And those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside those who died about the matter of Korah. And Aaron returned to Moses to the door of the Tent of Meeting; and the plague was stopped.

Numbers 17: 9-15

At the heart of Parashat Korach stands an uprising against Moses and Aaron by two groups of rebels led by Korach, on one hand, and by Dathan and Abiram on the other. To show that G-d has, indeed, chosen Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites, G-d lets loose his wrath on the rebels first by creating a giant crator in the Earth that swallows up the main group of rebels, then by incinerating another group, and finally by causing a deadly plague to dessimate the entire congregation of Israel, who by now was “murmuring” against Moses and Aaron for having brought so much death upon them. The entire tragic drama bolsters the legitimact of Moses and Aaron as the rightful leaders of Israel and, in the hands of commentators from the rabbinic sages to modern scholars and theologians, comes to teach valuable lessons about the nature of holiness and what constitutes debate “for the sake of heaven.”

Though an argument can be made that the community’s gripes and Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron are reasonable given the circumstances, the Torah’s stance is clear: Moses, Aaron and the kohanim are the good guys; those who challenge them are the bad guys. Thus, I find Moses’ and Aaron’s responses to the plague that God that brings about to silence the congregation quite remarkable. Whereas Moses had previously argued with God not to obliterate Israel both when the Israelites created a golden calf to worship and when scouts instilled doubt in the minds of Israel that they would be able to conquer the land of Canaan and possess it, here Moses doesn’t engage God at all. Rather, Moses directly intervenes on behalf of the very community that threatens him. By commanding Aaron to enter into the midst of the community with a fire pan with incense, Moses wants to stop halt the plague and save hundreds of thousand of lives. He may be at wits’ end with those he is charged to lead, but he refuses to abandon them. Instead, he takes the moral high ro

Aaron follows Moses lead. He, too, hurries to save Israel. One moment, Moses tells him to “go quickly to the congregation. The next moment, Aaron runs “into the midst of the congregation.” By specifying that Aaron ran and not simply “went quickly” as Moses had bade him, we see Aaron’s eagerness, too, to do right by human kind.

After witnessing the death of 14,700 Israelites, Moses and Aaron could throw up their hands in resignation or hold themselves above Israel in self-righteousness. But that’s not what they do. They follow their consciences to save life, and by doing so, serve as role models for selfless courage. In our day and age, we need such role models.

As we scan the news this week, we read about countless scenes of horror that call us to emulate Moses and Aaron: a senseless act of hatred at a black church in Charleston; the advance of radical Islamists in the Syria and Iraq; acts of nature disrupting and taking life; and so many more. We have the same choicea that our biblical leaders had: Do we argue with God to stop the destruction? Do we close our eyes and simply accept what is happening? Do we bask in the satisfaction that all this is happening somewhere far from us? Or do we act?

Moses and Aaron could not revive the thousands of dead Israelites, but they could insert themselves into the world they saw under attack to try to stop the madness. I don’t believe most of us as individuals can stop racists, bigots and extremists from wreaking havoc. We certainly can’t prevent waters from rising over the banks of rivers and bayous and pushing families out of their homes. But we do have the power to speak out against hatred, to encourage our government to fight ISIS, to support victims of natural disasters as they occur. There’s much we can do if we would only heed the call of our conscience.

Prayer itself wasn’t enough for Moses and Aaron to truly make a difference in their world, nor was arguing with God. When it came time to make a difference, they ran quickly to the aid not of friends and allies but of those who wished them ill. So, too, must we seize this moment to run quickly to change our world for all those in it, whether friends or strangers, whether we like them or not.

Parashah Ponderings

Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

Parashat Korach – Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

In Parashat Korach, Moses confronts an epic challenge. Korach, an ordinary Levite, a small band of followers, and 250 elected leaders “combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?'” (Numbers 16:3). In response, Moses instructs those who oppose him to appear with him and Aaron “before the Lord” the next morning bearing fire pans with incense. God would then resolve the issue: “… the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one” (16:7).

At the appointed time and place, Moses, Aaron, Korach, the small band and the elected leaders all gather “before the Lord” with their fire pans in hand. At that moment, “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions” (16:32), and “a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense”(16:35). In this stunning fashion, God once again chose Moses and Aaron to lead the People of Israel.

This incident, known as Korah’s Rebellion, serves as the basis for the rabbis’ discussion in the Talmud of arguments that are or are not for the sake of heaven:

Every machloket (conflict) which is l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is destined to endure. And that which is not l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) is destined not to endure. What is a machloket that is for the sake of Heaven? The disagreements over Jewish law in the Talmud between Hillel and Shammai. What is a machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his cohorts. (Mishnah Avot 5:17)

This teaching raises several questions. What does it mean for an argument to “endure?” Wouldn’t it make sense for a “bad” conflict to endure but a “good” conflict to come to a tidy resolution? Why do the rabbis elevate the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai to the status of “for the sake of Heaven?” What exactly is wrong with the “dispute of Korach and his cohorts?” The answers to these questions are instructive in our lives, where conflict, which is inevitable, can either be positive and constructive or negative and destructive.

Hillel and Shammai represent two schools of rabbinic thought around the beginning of the first century of the common era, each of whose arguments on issues from ritual practice to the essence of Torah are recorded in the Talmud. What distinguishes the Hillel-Shammai disagreements and, thus, warrants the inclusion of each school’s positions in our sacred literature, is that Hillel and Shammai and their followers are searching for Truth. They are in dialogue over their understandings of God’s instruction as laid out in the Torah. They aren’t arguing just to prove a point, to build themselves up or to bring each other down. They are arguing over big ideas. In fact, they aren’t even so much rivals as partners in a sacred, ongoing effort to discern what God wants of us.

Not so with Korach and his ilk. They seek victory for victory’s sake. They seek power. There can be no greater good to their dispute, no higher purpose to perpetuating their struggle with Moses and Aaron. According to Nechama Leibowitz, a great and revered contemporary Torah scholar writes:

…that Korah and his followers “were simply a band of malcontents, each harboring [individual] personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron hoping thereby to attain their individual desires.” Eventually, ”they would quarrel among themselves, as each one strove to attain selfish ambitions….” They deserve their punishment, argues Leibowitz, because all their motives were self-serving, meant to splinter and divide the Jewish people. (See Studies in Bemidbar, pp. 181-185). (Fields, Harvey J. [1991].  A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Vol. Three: Numbers and Deuteronomy. New York, NY: UAHC Press, p. 50)

How often do we engage in or witness a debate in which one or more parties resembles Korach and his followers, arguing from a place of pride, ambition, and self-interest? Argumentation in such debates is often couched in noble terms. (Note that Korach hides his grab for power behind the pretext of caring for the holiness of “all the community.”) But don’t be fooled. The noble terms are merely a smoke screen or a tactic of manipulation. In the end, there is no higher purpose to such debates. They waste time and energy and may very well end only after a great deal of harm has been inflicted. To be sure, the Korach-like arguments in our lives should be avoided if at all possible.

It is interesting that Korach finds himself being swallowed up by the earth. It is not only his argument that is not for the sake of Heaven. He himself has degraded himself by his own actions. Neither he nor his argument is for the sake of Heaven. In the words of our parashah, “They went down alive into Sheol (the netherworld)” (16:33).

We must remember that, as tempting as it may be to lash out against those with whom we disagree and to seek their demise, holding hatred in our hearts and expending our resources vengefully usually comes at a huge price. Not only does our lust for power and our pettiness separate us potentially from our friends, family and community, it also affects our health, our daily functioning, and our self-image. Little good can come out of such conflict, save a degree – albeit even a large degree — of personal gratification.

On the other hand, legitimate, respectful, impassioned debate over big ideas may very well bring us into relationship with others, sharpen our minds, and give greater meaning to our lives. This is why argumentation is so valued in Jewish houses of study. As Jews, we belief that argumentation at its best is ultimately redemptive for all concerned.

Let us seek to emulate the ways of Hillel and Shammai as we find ourselves in conflict. Let us ask if what we are arguing for is ultimately about ourselves or if there is a larger, sacred purpose. Are we repeating the mistake of Korach and his associates? Or are we carrying on our sages’ legacy of sacred debate? If the former, let us consider if our short-term objectives are worth the longer-term destruction we may cause. In any case, let us stop and think before engaging in conflict and resolve to make all our debates l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.