A Place for Rage – Parshat Korach 5781

We live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to express your disdain, outrage, or disagreement in a public forum rather than privately with the person against whom you have the complaint. On the one hand, it can be constructive to call out misdeeds and to call out hate and bigotry, with the hope that we’re better able to hold people accountable for their actions. At the same time, this means that we’re constantly forgetting the power and importance of one-on-one conversations when we’re angry, upset, or frustrated. The repercussions from public rebuke can be extreme for both parties; at the same time the lack of consequence or follow through for private response is also troubling. So we’re left with a choice. Which is better: a public shaming with big repercussions, or a private shaming with measured response, but perhaps no significant change?

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Korach, debates this as well. This week we read 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.

The reason for Korach’s revolt is that he feels he and his people don’t have a voice in the current leadership. Moses is upset, he’s trying to do the best he can, and doesn’t know how to move forward. They are at an impasse. Korah decides to make a big public display, airing his grievances and making sure that everyone knows why he is upset. Moses, on the other hand, tries to make amends and find common ground and perhaps a way forward. Tragically in the end, it results in death and destruction on top of the hurt feelings and hate. 

What do we learn? It’s hard to know when to speak up and turn a disagreement or difference of opinion into a bigger deal and when a private, more quiet approach is a better way forward. What we can say for certain after reading Parshat Korach is that it’s always best to consider all options before acting. If there are atrocities, if there is corruption, by all means, call it out. And at the same time remember it’s ok to be deliberate and strategic about how you approach delicate or potentially controversial issues. It doesn’t seem to be the preferred method in an age driven by social media and every minute news, but if this week’s Torah portion teaches anything, it’s that the measured response deserves a seat at the table.

Take Care – Parshat Korach 5780

I often wonder why our world couldn’t do a dramatically better job taking care of one another. I’m not here to argue for socialism or even democratic socialism, but the distribution of power and wealth in most of the world is staggering. When I was in Guatemala, we learned that 3% of the country holds 64% of the wealth. Guatemala suffers from massive poverty, lack of education, malnutrition, and a host of other problems that largely stem from the uneven distribution of wealth in their country. While education and hard work are certainly foundational to individual and societal success, when your homeland is as corrupt as Guatemala, it really doesn’t do you much good. But even putting aside government corruption, the wealth and class distribution problem isn’t unique to Guatemala. Consider tax laws and loopholes here in America. The free market can and does work, but when we incentivize selfishness, society begins to crumble.

This basic fact of civilized society is underlined as far back as biblical law. This week we read Parshat Korach, the narrative detailing 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. 

The end of the parshah brings the rules of tithing. Every Israelite was expected to give a tenth of his or her income to the Levites to support them because the Levites had no other income. The Levites lived their lives in service to the priests. The Levites, in turn, tithed a tenth of what they had to the priests. The Torah suggests that even those who receive support for their livelihood must also give to others. 

Tzedakah sustains the soul of the giver and the body of the receiver. As you may know, the Jewish concept of tzedakah comes from the root for “justice.” Said another way, a just society is one in which we take care of one another. We recognize that each person has a purpose to fulfill and, even in a literal sense, something to give back.

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.