Pay No Attention – Parshat Korach 5779

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One of my biggest challenges as the mother of two young (in other words, highly emotionally driven) kids is the temper tantrum. I myself was an expert tantrum thrower as a child, so I’m convinced some of their “ability” is genetic, and some is simply payback for my awful emotional behavior as a child. Sorry, Mom!

When a tantrum starts, I try my best to stop it immediately before it gets really out of hand. However, if I’m unsuccessful it usually means I need to go to my backup tactic, which is simply to ignore the irrational behavior. This isn’t my first choice method because it usually means one of my children is now screaming and flailing their body, possibly in public, and I have to ignore it in order for the ordeal to end. I often get knowing, compassionate looks from other moms as I implore them with either my words or just my own looks, “Pay no attention.” While it’s not pleasant in the moment, depriving these irrational demands for attention of the attention they’re seeking can be the best way to end them.

This week we come to a giant temper tantrum in the Torah. We read from Parshat Korach, the famous story of rebellion and betrayal, but also leadership. The narrative details a revolt within the Israelites from Korach, Datan, and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares the revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a rebellion of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which becomes a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

When Moses hears of the uprising, he sends for Datan and Aviram to come to him. They answer, “We will not come!” and respond instead by listing all the injustices that Moses has brought upon them. He took them from their warm home, from their “perfect” land to a terrible, horrible place. As a parent, this is clearly a tantrum if I’ve ever seen one. While they go on and on, Moses stands by with God simply waiting for the tantrum to end. Moses even says to God, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” Moses, like the hapless parent who just wants the tantrum to end, doesn’t know what else to do with these rebels other than let them yell it out.

One of the many responsibilities we have in any relationship – partner, parent, or coworker – is knowing when to allow people the space to vent their anger in a safe way and then help them put the pieces back together through dialogue and discourse. The hardest part is stopping ourselves from reacting and simply providing that safe space.

Of course in Parshat Korach those who led the rebellion faced a fate much worse than an exasperated parent (although my children might disagree). Still, the lesson of the Torah portion is to let cooler heads prevail when possible, even if in this case the heads in question never really cooled.

There’s a saying taught to preschoolers that goes, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” This mantra seems to be a great way to teach gratitude and calm responses, but unfortunately it discounts upset feelings as bad or wrong. I know several teachers who have modified the phrase slightly to, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” While it doesn’t rhyme as well, it reinforces to the child that feelings of disappointment are natural, but a tantrum is what’s not welcome. If only Moses had been a preschool teacher.

Swallow My Pride – Parshat Korach 5778

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Frozen’s Elsa makes it sound easy, but it’s hard to “let it go.” There will always be interactions with other people that leave you upset, confused, or emotionally beat down. When it feels like I’ve been wronged, I can hold a grudge like the best of them, and I don’t always have the easiest time moving on. For better or worse, I often hold myself accountable and dwell on what I may have done wrong or could have done differently for a different outcome. Rising above these moments challenges me to my core. I almost always feel better once I have risen up and worked toward being the “better person,” but the effort it takes can sometimes be monumental.

This basic human condition goes as far back as the Torah, at least. This week we read from Parshat Korah, the famous story of rebellion, betrayal, and leadership. The narrative details the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt, while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which becomes a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

As the rebellion is happening, Moses as the leader has a few choices to make. He can continue on his path as the leader and ignore the chaos; he can choose to confront and shame the rebellious parties; or he can try to engage with them and forgive, moving forward together.

In chapter 16, verse 12 we read that Moses sent for Datan and Aviram. Rashi interprets this verse in the following way:

Here we see the greatness of Moses’s soul. He set aside his own dignity and his feelings of resentment toward those who spoke ill of him and took the initiative to heal this breach in the community.

Moses took the high road. Moses is a leader through and through, and in this moment he chooses to lead by example.

Holding onto a grudge is easy. The challenge is to rise up and move beyond hurt emotions, anger, and pettiness. When we read the Torah portion this week, we’re reminded of our ability to rise up and the opportunity to make positive change. Be like Moses, as hard as it is, so that as we near the High Holidays, we practice what it truly means to forgive.

Team Building – Parshat Korach 5777

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Imagine an office environment in which there are three employees who do the same type of work. Each of them is dedicated to completing the assigned responsibilities, but to varying degrees. One of them does the bare minimum, simply checking a box in order to move on to the next task. Another goes further, investing fully in a project and spending time and energy pouring over the details. The third goes above and beyond, doing well more than required. The work they put in is reflected in their yearly bonuses, with the most dedicated of the three receiving the largest bonus. However, in each case the job still gets done, so why should the hardest worker get paid more?

According to Korach, this is the dilemma facing the Israelite nation. This week in Parshat Korach, we read the details of the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which turns out to be a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach’s problem was that he saw the community as unbalanced. He didn’t understand the need for priests and additional leaders and why holiness played a role in leadership. In Korach’s words, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” Korach sees the entire community as holy and thus deserving of equal status, including their relationship with God and leadership responsibilities. In Korach’s mind, no one is better or holier than any other community member, which, in a sense, is a beautiful vision of equality.

Unfortunately, Korach underestimates the value of leadership. Everyone may possess some holiness, but without the vision and direction of leaders, what good is that holiness to the community? Working together in general, let alone building a society, isn’t always neat and tidy. Group efforts can be messy and difficult because, holiness aside, everyone is different. Some people will work to the status quo, and some will go above and beyond. But the beauty of true community and teamwork is recognizing that each person has something to contribute. We may each be holy, but the holiness of the community is far greater than the sum of our individual holiness.

Modern Torah commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz offers a similar take. The model that the Torah sets up is one where communal holiness is the goal, not a given. While we may all have a spark of holiness inside us, our community isn’t truly holy until those sparks come together.

Give and Take – Parshat Korach 5776

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“Need a penny, take a penny. Have a penny, give a penny.” I’m sure you’ve seen the little sign at a grocery store. It’s anonymous charity. The idea is that there exists a pair of strangers at any given time, one who needs the extra penny and one who has the extra change to supply it. But the change dish is open and accessible to all. In other words, everyone is presented with the same three options: give a penny, take a penny, or simply walk away. Everyone is equal in relation to the penny dish; it’s possible that a wealthy person is short of exact change for a purchase and just as possible that a poor person happens to have an extra penny to leave behind. After all, it’s just a penny. It’s not the status of the person on the giving or receiving end that matters; rather, it’s the participation in this simple, yet effective system that keeps things balanced.

This is not unlike a lesson we learn in Judaism. Our religion suggests that there are moments in which we must take care of one another regardless of our standing in society. Regardless of what you have individually, Jews are required to take food to mourners and to comfort the grieving. Regardless of your monetary standing, we are urged to make regular donations, even for a few dollars at a time, to support our various institutions.

This week we read parshat Korach, the narrative detailing the revolt of Korach. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt, while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which turns out to be solid decision making as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

In chapter 18, verse 26 we read “When you receive from the Israelites their tithes, which I have assigned to you as your share, you shall set aside from them one-tenth of the tithe as a gift to the Lord.” Specifically, every Israelite was expected to give 10% of his income to the Levites because the Levites had no other form of income. They were only expected to work with and assist the priests. However, the Levites themselves, who were living on gifts from others, were also required to tithe a tenth of what they received to the priests.

The lesson is that even those who rely on public support for their livelihood must give part of what they receive as tzedakah. The act of giving is one that can nourish the soul of the giver as well as sustain the receiver. The Torah in our text this week reminds us that, like the blind nature of the sign by the pennies, we may not all be equal in fortune or position, but we are all equally obligated to each other.