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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Korach                                    June 12, 2021 - 2 Tammuz 5781

06/11/2021 10:03:43 AM


Al Kiddush Hashem – for the holiness of God’s name.  It isn’t a battle cry.  It’s a special phrase we use that describes those who have been murdered because of their Jewishness.  The victims of the holocaust, fallen Israeli soldiers, victims of pogroms, blood libels, lynchings, are all examples of those who we say have died al kiddush Hashem, for the holiness of God’s name.  It’s a phrase most of us know very well as we invoke it on the holidays and memorial services.  But what about killing in God’s name?  To be fair, there are many examples in the Tanach where Israelites were instructed by God to kill, but the concept of killing in God’s name, the idea that one human being can understand the morality of God with such certainty so as to justify the killing of another, is fundamentally alien to Jewish ideology.  Judaism prohibits killing in the name of God.

The title of our Parsha this week, Korach, is named for the man who challenges Moses in the desert for leadership of the Israelite people.  At this point in the biblical narrative, the people of Israel have already reached the other side of the Sinai desert and saw with their own eyes the land promised to them by God.  Except that they didn’t enter the land on account of the sin of the spies from last week’s parsha, because while all the spies agreed that the land was indeed flowing with milk and honey, only 2 of the spies believed that with God’s help, the Israelite nation would be able to successfully conquer the land from the Canaanites.  The other 10 spies, however, disagreed, believing that the Israelites had no chance of mounting a successful campaign.  For their lack of faith, God decided that the people were not yet deserving of the land, and instructed Moses to lead the people back into the desert where they would wander aimlessly until a new generation of Israelites could at last become the people to merit crossing the Jordan river.  We can only imagine how the Israelites must have felt at this point – dejected, resentful, and hopeless that despite the wonders they had seen, knowing they, themselves would die in the desert without ever setting foot in the land of Israel.  Enter Korach, who, with the support of 250 elders, marches up to Moses to demand a referendum on his leadership.  It makes perfect sense from the perspective of the Israelites, that their confidence in Moses would be shaken.  After a contest followed by a fire and light show in which God demonstrates his preference that Moses and Aaron retain their roles as the leaders of Israel, God causes the ground to open up and swallow Korach, his family, and all of his followers.

That’s the literal interpretation of the Torah narrative, and we can pretty much all agree that it sounds pretty awful.  Challenging our leaders and holding them accountable is supposed to be a hallmark of democracy.  If the Torah is meant to be the foundation upon which western civilized society is built, it should be encouraging debate and free speech.  It should abhor authoritarianism, and at the very least, it shouldn’t be the kind of administration that kills dissidents, their families and all of their followers.

Of course, it doesn’t really make sense to judge 3000 year old political systems by our modern standards but don’t worry, we’re not about to let the Torah off the hook here.  The Torah is supposed to be timeless, and have something to teach us in every generation.  It’s going to take some doing getting there, but follow along this line of reasoning with me.  

Let’s first remember that the basic premise of Judaism, and certainly the Torah, is that God is always right.  For religious Jews, which for most of Jewish history, was ALL Jews, the story of Korach would not have posed any moral problems.  God chose Moses and Aaron, end of story.  Anybody opposing Moses and Aaron is also opposing God, and since God is always right, any challenger is morally deserving of whatever they get.  The Israelite nation, at the time, was definitively not a democracy, and therefore the Torah need make no apology.  Except, though, that it seems that the traditional commentators are also bothered by this story, highlighting passages that, with some interpretation, portray Korach as power hungry, disrespectful, not at all concerned about what would be best for the Israelite people, and therefore deserving of his fate.  In a way, it appears that even the commentators do not feel that the argument that “God knows what He’s doing” is sufficient for them.

There are a lot of good points that the commentators make in order to justify the death of Korach and his followers.  The most convincing one that I can see is that idea that the Torah makes many references to Moses innate humility, to be a person who is truly selfless, and therefore best suited to be the person to both commune directly with God and lead the Israelite people.  How often can we say that for certain about our leaders today? And for me, that’s as good a reason as any, because this would mean that Korach and his followers were usurpers of power for their own self-interest, and completely out of step with the Divine plan that was already underway.   But that’s not what the story of Korach means to me.  Rather, I believe the lesson of Korach is really about the story of how our sages have interpreted it throughout history.  Think about it - never has there been a time when we simply accepted that the killing of Korach was intrinsically moral just because God chose Moses.  This, I believe, is exactly the way of thinking that has always set the Jewish people apart from the other ancient civilizations.  It is what gives the Jewish people a special cultural uniqueness, and allows us to realize our value as a Light Unto the Nations.  It is because even though our theological understanding of God is that He is intrinsically moral, it doesn’t stop us from questioning God’s morality, as illustrated in this clip from the movie, Bruce Almighty, where God is played by Morgan Freeman.

Morgan Freeman’s fantastic characterization of God notwithstanding, here we see perhaps the most bizarre theological contradiction in mainstream Jewish ideology – Jews are allowed to question God who is unquestionable.  We can ask why, we can strive to learn by cultivating a relationship with the divine, but we must in the end admit that we don’t know, and never will.  It’s what makes that wonderfully awkward pause at the end of that video clip so deliciously appropriate, but it’s also why even though millions of Jews have died ‘al kiddush Hashem’, for the sake of God’s holiness, we do not kill for this reason. Jews don’t kill in the name of God.  Which isn’t to say there have not been religious Jewish zealots, even in our recent history, such as Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995, or Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994.  But whenever such atrocities have happened, the entire Jewish people have responded in an immediate, clear and unified voice of condemnation.  As media campaigns continue to lie and smear Israel for the sin of surviving, and as we Jews in the diaspora endure a dramatic rise in antisemitism as punishment for the same, we hope that the world might one day realize that the Jewish people stand against all religious zealotry, including Jewish zealotry.  But make no mistake, the Jewish people will fight to protect ourselves, to preserve our people, and safeguard our right to existence, self-determination and to be free from oppression, just as is the right of every other human being on earth.

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782