Yosef Israel Abramowitz, who blogs daily at www.Peoplehood.org, supported the candidacy of Einat Wilf for President of the World Jewish Congress. He is a member of Kol Dor and lives in the wilderness of the Arava. He can be reached at YosefA@aol.com.
KIBBUTZ KETURA–In one of those biting and perhaps ironic alignments of Torah and public Jewish life, we read Parashat Korah as three contemporary rebellions came to a climax in contested Jewish leadership battles this week. Moshe Katzav, Israel’s embattled and discredited President, at long last finished his term. Amir Peretz’s successor as head of the Israeli Labor party was chosen in a run-off election. And, after 27 years at the helm, World Jewish Congress President Edgar M. Bronfman presided over a contested election for his successor after the WJC could not shake a series of on- going public accusations and challenges.
I believe that since the purpose of the Jewish people has something to do with modeling standing up against tyrannies, the instinct to rebel needs to be strong and nurtured in every generation through every holiday, ritual and lesson plan.
Yet in this week’s Torah portion, the rebellion of Korah and his 250 men against the privileged status of Moses and Aaron to lead the Jewish people sends a foreboding message. Their challenge was short-lived, as God summons the earth to open up and swallow the rebels into a blazing pit. One would think that this would squelch even a stiff-necked people’s instinct to challenge authority. The next day, however, the Israelites come back and challenge Moses once again. “You have killed the people of God,” they protest. And this time God gets really mad. A plague spreads through the people, killing 14,700, which is only stopped by Aaron exercising his priestly powers.
The rabbis are clearly uncomfortable with the fate of Korah, as Rabbinic Judaism itself rose as a challenge to a priestly Judaism that traces its source of authenticity to the First Family of the Israelites. So they do two things: they undertake a smear campaign against him and then they rehabilitate him. Korah’s ghastly fate is made ever starker given the positive power of his revolutionary message: That all Israelites are created equal before God and should have the opportunity and privilege to lead.
The rabbis, instead of celebrating Korah’s message, paint him as an opportunist who peeked at last week’s parasha and positioned himself as a populist to feed on the discontent of the people. Last week, in Parashat Beshalach, the people clamored for a new leader to take them back to a land flowing with milk and honey, as they called Egypt in a painful twist. Then the rabbis throw negative ads against Korah, claiming that he ridiculed Moses with a series of trick questions. Does a house filled with copies of the Torah, which includes the words of the Sh’ma, still need a mezuzah to be kosher? Yes, replies Moses to the inquisition, looking quite silly but correct. And Moses, would youmake an exception for a poor widow to use both an ox and a mule together to plow her fields in order to eat? No, replies Moses, failing the compassion test but upholding the strict letter of the law. The rabbis now have reason to distrust Korah and to caution all of us not to get too excited about his seemingly just and universalistic complaints. He is now, obviously, a demagogue.
But the rabbis also know that everyone knows they invented these character assassinations and that Korah’s call for all Jews to be able to have the privilege to lead is fundamental to living covenantally. Their own credibility throughout the generations will be called into question if they can demonstrate that they actually agree with the essence of Korah’s message. Just as the rabbis honored Moses’s father in law, Yitro, by naming the Torah portion when we receive the law in his honor, so too the rabbis tip their hand by naming this week’s Torah portion in honor of our arch-rebel. Naming rights for Torah portions are very exclusive, guaranteeing the honoree to be part of the lexicon of the Jewish people and the world forever.
Yet if you are an undecided voter, having read the Talmud as well as the Torah portion, and still need some direction, a last minute endorsement by King David may be determinative. “For the sons of Korah,” writes His Majesty in a dedication to many of the Psalms (42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87). Yet if Korah and all his clan were killed, who then are Korah’s children? We each are, the potential rebels in each generation.
The uncomfortable truth is that Moses at Sinai and Korah in the wilderness taught the same lesson to humanity. (“Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” Exodus 19:7) Yet for our Master, it was not a slogan to be exploited for political gain or a grab at power wrapped in the flag of principle. Moses was drafted for his leadership role by the Creator of Mission. All others should be viewed with suspicion.
With the elections this week, can we honestly say we are any closer to solving the leadership crisis of the Jewish people? Have aristocracies solidified their hold or are the people empowered? Are these questions in themselves a form of demagoguery or are they legitimate? It all depends, say our sources, on the motivation behind them. Judging motivation is an art, an instinct, that often benefits from open, fair, highly participatory elections.