Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Parashat Korach - Monsters From The Yid


In the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet, the dashing space ship captain, Commander John Adams, played by the handsome Leslie Nielsen, confronts the evil Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in a climactic scene of hand-to-hand combat that personifies the Struggle Of Good Versus Evil. Nielsen / Adams, trying to wrestle Morbius / Pidgeon to the ground, shouts, "People can't just do what they want - that's why we have laws and religion!" (I'm quoting from memory, so FP fanatics, please cut me some slack!)

Did you ever notice how so many science fiction stories are about the theme of incredible new discoveries, or amazing new technologies, that somehow get out of control and destroy themselves, taking with them their inventor / discoverer, and most of the human race?

We have our hands on the most amazing technology of all: Torah. The Torah, through which G-d created Yesh Me'Ayin - Being Out Of Nothing. And in creating the Jewish People, G-d also created something from nothing. From an oppressed group of slaves whose only identity lay in the commonality of immense suffering, G-d fashions a Nation - 'Am Israel.

Dr. Morbius shows Captain Adams the amazing technology of the Krell civilization - the extinct inhabitants of the Forbidden Planet. Then he explains ominously that their own technology ultimately destoryed them. That, out of their darkest unconscious thoughts and desires, demons arose that slew a great civilization. In the culminating scene of mano-a-mano combat, Morbius shouts "That's what destroyed them Monsters from the id!" Captain Adams, all-American jock astronaut, while pursuing Morbius across the laboratory and trying to get him in a hammerlock, shouts, "The id? The id? What's that?"

Put simply: everybody wants to be Daddy's favorite. Or: some people will do anything for attention.

As to Korach, the question is not, Why does he rebel. The question is, Why now?

The brewing crisis of leadership in Klal Israel may begin with the gifts of the Nesi'im at the end of Parashat Naso, when the Nasi'im of the twelve tribe bring identical offerings on successive days, and the Ba'al Koreh has to read each of them - and we have to listen to each of them. The Midrash tells us that the Nesi'im argued amongst themselves, for only one of them could be the first to bring his gift. You can only throw out the first pitch one time. But G-d, wishing to make each of them feel important, permitted each to bring the same gift, and made each new, unique, based opn the one who brought it. Sort of like our Paskening that we say the Berachah of Shechechiyanu on the second day of Yom Tov because it's the first time that we observe the second day...

No sooner have the Nesi'im been placated, relates the Midrash, but Aharon voices his displeasure. G-d's policy of No Nsai Left Behand has now left Aharon feeling slighted. After all, he reasons, the Mishkan was supposed to be all about me, Aharon, doing the Avodah. Why didn't I get to bring anything? But, G-d croons soothingly, Aharon, see, you get to light the Menorah, and that is something you get to do every day. And no one else gets to do something every day, and that's much more important than a bunch of stones and basins and what not... But Aharon, not to be outdone, has no sooner agreed to this "higher" form of honor, in Parashat Beha'alotcha, than he and Miriam fall to criticizing Moshe. They attack his character and say that his involvement with the Cushite woman makes him unfit to lead. After all, they reason, G-d speaks with us also. It's not only Moshe who hears G-d's word. (The Cushite woman, by the way, is never identified, and heard from again. She is the Dark Lady of the Chumash.)

Last week, in Parashat Shelach, twelve Princes were dispatched to spy out the Land. Bamidbar 13:2 "... one man of his father's tribe shall you send: each, a prince among them." Note that the verb "shall you send" is voiced in plural. It is all of 'Am Israel that send the spies, not Moshe alone. And things get out of control. It is precisely because the entire nation sends the spies that we believe we have the right to tell Moshe what to do, to argue with Moshe's leadership. Like the contingent in a synagogue who voted against hiring the new rabbi, anything they disagree with is met with the complaint: "I didn't check that box on the New Rabbi Search Committee Questionnaire!" And the immediate result is that the ten spies who spoke against proceeding to enter the Land are smitten with a plague and die.

This week, Korach - like Moshe and Aharon, a Levite - gathers around him 250 of the princes of Israel and stages a showdown with Moshe and Aharon. The same word describes the 250 (Nesi'ei Israel) as described the twelve sent to spy out the Land of Canaan. They are the class bretheren of the ten whom G-d slew. Korach is standing up for the ruling class and asserting their right to participate in the direction of the nation. Korach and his passle of princes demand nothing less than their own Magna Carta, insisting that Moshe and Aharon share the power.

And why now? Why just at this moment? The Midrash on Beha'alotcha, quoted by Rashi, tells that Eldad and Medad prophesied the death of Moshe at the moment we entered the Land. Korach has been able to bide is time, knowing that Moshe would soon be out of the way, and already having seen the people immediately descent into disarray and despair - remember the 'Egel, where we counted wrong by half a day, and it very nearly wrecked the nation? - Korach knew that those truly focused on power would soon have free rein to ascend. Now, though, with the foray into the Land thwarted, Korach sees himself trapped in another thirty-eight years of kowtowing to the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. This was not the plan. He takes action.

The Midrash tells us that Korach discovered one of Joseph's secret treasure troves, and that there was so much wealth inside that it took 300 donkeys just to carry the keys to Korach's new hoard. Korach, it should be noted, did not side with Aharon and Miriam, nor with the 'Am - the hoi polloi - when they tried to attack Yehoshua and Caleb. Now, though, that G-d strikes down the aristocracy, Korach sees that wealth and status do not confer power in this society, nor even protection. It is this realization that galvanizes him into action. For the Wealthy, the natural order consists in the wealthy attaining power, and in the masses following dutifully. Wealth should guarantee power. The Powerful must cede some of their power to the wealthy - just as Moshe shared his Wisdom with the Elders, so must he share his Power with the Rich.

A brilliant elitist leader, Korach does not attack head on. He does not confront Moshe and say: Since I'm so rich, you should accord me special status. He does not seek to buy influence by contributing to the Mishkan treasury, or by offering Moshe and Aharon an all-expenses-paid junket to the Jordan Sands Hilton Hotel and Casino. Nor, interestingly, does he offer to buy the Land of Canaan from its current inhabitants, as did his ancestor Abraham.

Rather, Korach address the entire assembly - people he characterizes in his private moments as "rabble" - and says, pointing to Moshe and Aharon: "These men think you are not good enough to control your own destiny." His question "Who put you in charge?" is patently ridiculous, for it was G-d who put Moshe and Aharon in charge of 'Am Israel. Yet, this is the Revolt of the Princes, and so such a question may be posed, must be taken seriously, and needs to be answered.

In a poignant outcry [16:10] Moshe snarls at Korach, "... and the One that brought you near, and all your bretheren, the Sons of Levi with you - and you seek to take the Priesthood (Kahuna) also?!" For Moshe was originally supposed to be both the political and the spiritual leader - to be both King and Priest - yet lost the Kahuna because he delayed in carrying out G-d's word. "Even I didn't get the Kahuna," Moshe seems to say, "and now you want it too?"

The Gemara in Shabbat tells the story of a non-Jew who came to Shammai with the following taunt: Convert me to Judaism, on the condition that I be made Cohen Gadol. When he approached Hillel, Hillel first converted him, then told him: If you want to be Cohen Gadol, you need to study all the laws. And of course, the new convert quickly discovered that he would never become any kind of Kohen, much less Kohen Gadol. And yet, the story ends with all the new converts praising Hillel for bringing them under the wings of the Shechinah. Such is the awesome power and beauty ofTorah for those who embrace it.

Korach's argument is seductive. And dangerously wrong. At 16:3 he states, "All the Congregation, all of them are holy..." To believe that being born Jewish imbues one with an intrinsic holiness is the pinnacle of Avodah Zarah (Idol Worship): the worship of the self. Like all myths of national uniqueness, it is based on a lie so seductive none of us is wholly immune to its charms. All the more so because at its core lies something almost exactly identical to Truth. Almost. But not.

We were given the formula for seeking holiness a scant five verses before, in the Parasha of Tzitzit which ends Shelach-Lecha. There, we are commanded to be guided by the Tzitzit to remember, to observe and to perform all of G-d's Mitzvot, and thereby to become holy to G-d. Halacha is the process whereby we strive to become holy. And holiness in Torah is a process, and not a static state. Only G-d IS holy. The rest of us are presented with infinite opportunities for attaining holiness, but each pinnacle has a downward slope immediately behind it, and so we must repeat our observance of the Mitzvot and adhere continually to Torah. Our holiness is not innate. It is based on What We Do, not Who We are.

Now we also understand the true Sin of the Spies. We say the Sin of the Golden Calf, yet it was not the Calf that sinned, but we ourselves who sinned through the Calf. We say the Sin of the Spies. Yet it was not the Spies who sinned. We sent them, acting collectively. And when they returned, we wanted to be guided by them. They were the aristocracy, and we wanted nothing more than to cede to them our own moral responsibility. And, incidentally, to be able to blame them, and not ourselves, if things went wrong. Korach plays the political game brilliantly, for he sees that the lower classes are eager to ape their betters, rather than thinking for themselves. We have become a rabble, a mob.

We are ripe for having others do our thinking for us.

At 16:13, Dathan and Abiram snub Moshe's invitation to dialogue, saying "... you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, and now you want to make yourself a ruler over us?" And then, [verse 14] "And you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us an inheritance of field and vineyard..."

In our eyes - for we all stood at Sinai - there is no difference between Mizraim and Eretz Israel. They are interchangeable. The only difference is that, in the Land of Israel, we shall be the landowners. In Mizraim, we owned nothing - not even our own bodies. Should we derive from this Pasuk that, in the Land of Israel, the indigenous inhabitants will be our slaves, just as we were slaves to the Egyptians?

We sent Spies to bring back a report of the Land. They came back and told us that it flows with milk and honey, which means nothing more to us than merely a comfortable place to live, rather than having to wander in the desert. The Spies did not even see the holiness of the Land, and we did not want them to see it. Their sole disappointment is that they no will have to wait a further 38 years before they become the Landed Gentry. And our disappointment?

After the death of the 250, there are rumblings of insurrection. We murmur against Moshe and Aharon saying "You have killed the people of G-d." A fanciful reading of the Hebrew word "Va-yilonu" - "and they murmured" - is to read in it the word YUD LAMED NUN - meaning To spend the night. It is as though under cover of darkness, we stir ourselves up to acts we would not contemplate in broad daylight. Korach's message was that poweful. We actually believe that Korach and his crowd were holy. More significant, we do not include ourselves in the rebuke. We do not say, "You have killed our bretheren." We do not consider that we ourselves may have just had a close call. No. We are celebrity woshippers. Korach and the Princes, the Aristocracy of the Nation. Korach says we are holy. Now Korach is gone. And now who can we turn to to make us feel special?

The Sfas Emes, on Parashat Shelach, writes that the verb LaTur - in the instruction to the Spies "LaTur et haAretz", to explore the Land - means, "To bring Torah into the Land". In that, we failed miserably. For Torah is not yet in ourselves. Hence the corrective of the Tzitzit, telling us "lo taturu..." - "do not explore your own desires, your own ideas," do not think - as G-d placed the Land before you and invited you to see it before you embraced it eternaly - that you should embrace your own thoughts and whims and notions as though they were given by G-d. Embrace rather the Halacha.

Finally, the Parasha ends with an extended and detailed discussion of all the obligations and gifts, therituals and the responsibilities given over to the Kohanim. As if to remind Moshe not to chafe at his own loss of office. Just as Korach could never be Moshe, so Moshe can never be Aharon. The Torah goes to great lengths to "rub it in."

Yet, there is room in Torah for everyone. Not because we ARE holy - for we are not - but we have been given a way to strive after holiness. We are Chosen, not because we are better than anyone else, but we have been chosen for a life of obligation to strive to better our own selves. To fulfill the Mitzvah and the potential of becoming a Holy Nation. One of the reasons Jews have been so successful at sustaining morality is that, for the last two thousand years, we have all known, as surely as any human being knows anything, that we would never be In Charge. And so we turned our Torah inwards, seeking to improve ourselves, our families, our community.

Korach's partner, On Ben Peleth, is singled out, and his lineage traced all the way back to Reuven. Reuven, who attempted to take control of the family by taking his own father's wives during Yaakov's lifetime. It is a nice literary twist - and no coincidence - that the text ties Korach's behavior directly to that of the son who sought to unseat his own father.

Lineage is only lineage. It does not guarantee moral behavior. It is certainly not a substitute for it. The Rambam says that the Exodus from Egypt was the first experience of Exile, setting the stage for the eternal theme of Exile and Redemption that spans our history. If, in our eyes, both Egypt and Israel are the Land of Milk and Honey - if we can not tell the difference for ourselves between Exile and Redemption - if we believe Korach's Yiches is more important that G-d's Torah - then are we ready for anything? Do we really deserve to Be In Charge?

If, in this historical time and place where we are, in fact, in charge, do we strive to attain the Torah's level of morality? Or do we take it as our due that we may behave with impunity? That all Jews are intrinsically holy, and that any act committed by a Jew oozes a natural holiness, and must not be criticized?

Because this leads not only to Jews despising Goyim. It leads to Jews despising one another.

If we are a Holy People, it is only in potential. The rabbis who teach that there is intrinsic holiness in the body of a Jew have spread Avodah Zarah among Klal Israel.

Monsters From The Yid.

In our comfort, in our sense of security, we may come to believe that we intrinsically deserve what we have. We may come to stop asking difficult moral questions: about the place of the Jewish community in American society; about the moral obligation of rich, safe, secure Jews towards poor, frightened, hunted non-Jewish victims of Ethnic Cleansing; about the duty we owe Jews in other parts of the world - Jews who are poor, and frightened, and abused - and who may not be so appealing to us because they are culturally so different from us that... they don't Look Jewish... We may stop worrying about the rights of others, rights that sometimes suffer when we get what we want. It's OK, we might argue, it's all right, we might say. The world owes it to us for a change.

If we believe this - even for a moment - then maybe even thirty-eight years won't be time enough for us to prepare.


Yours for a better world.


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