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Korach 5781 ~ June 11, 2021

I often share with brides and grooms that in the word “wedding”, “we” comes before “I.” In that statement the sum of the whole is just as important as the individual. At the same time, it is very important to understand the need of the individual in creating the “we” in any good relationship. If we only concentrate on the “we” then we do not allow the individuality that brought the two entities together to flourish, as well as to work through the individual’s challenging moments.  Clearly, we all know that there is much that is involved in any good marriage and any good relationship.

Our Torah reading for this Shabbat continues to share with us the challenges that the community of Israel had to deal with when relationships broke down. If one carefully reads last week’s narrative of the dispute between the twelve spies and the rabble rousing of the ten spies against the two with a positive outlook, and compare it to this week’s Torah reading of the rebellion of Korach and two hundred and fifty followers against Moses and Aaron, one might assume that their dispute was solely with Moses.

As we read more carefully into the stories, it becomes even clearer that the dispute was actually between themselves, in a very unhealthy matter. In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, we are taught that the controversy took place within Korach’s camp as they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. I always had been taught that it was Korach himself, a relative of Moses and Aaron, who disputed the right of Aaron to be the High Priest. What I learned in my studies this week was that it was not only Korach, but each of the two-hundred and fifty rabble rousers who declared that it was his right to be the High Priest. Imagine two hundred and fifty vying for that position. Such dissension was beyond the scope of what our tradition teaches is a makhloket, a dispute, for the sake of heaven. In this instance, none were looking out for the good of the whole, but rather for oneself. It was for that reason alone that Moses had to reach out to God to intervene and stop the madness within the camp.

As a rabbi, I have always maintained that a good dialogue and discussion on disagreements are quite healthy. It is a part of what has maintained Jewish tradition in such a beautiful fashion. Not only can we agree to disagree, we can agree to find solutions. The Talmud is filled with disagreements between rabbis on their positions regarding Jewish law. The fact that they dialogue, and come to a resolution on most matters, is what gives Jewish texts and studies such a healthy reality and why we enjoy Jewish text study.

Several years ago, I found myself in a Korach style dispute with one of my congregants. Our USYers wanted to sit for the Shema, and the congregation wanted to stand. The tradition was that on Friday night our congregation stood, as is done in Reform congregations, and on Shabbat morning everyone remained seated. The congregation wanted me to force the USY’ers to stand at Friday evening services. At a ritual meeting I stated that I would consult the texts and respond.

After checking the sources, I taught from the legal codes at a Friday night service. I taught what I gleaned from the halachic texts: One can recite the Shema either sitting or standing. If you are already standing, then stay standing, if you are sitting, then stay seated.  For those who choose to stand following the Barchu and continue standing through the Shema, then do so, those who choose to sit after the Barchu should remain seated. That is the halacha. So let us accommodate both rulings. 

One woman, who was the director of a competing concern in our community (she ran the non-sectarian Hebrew Academy and I oversaw the Solomon Schechter School), wanted to prove that she was far superior to the rabbi in knowledge, who dared to compete with her school. She, as a board member of our shul, came in front of the board and declared in Hebrew that the one who is sitting may be strict and rise.  I sat quietly, believe it or not, and, when my turn came, reiterated the words of the legal texts without them in front of me. She declared that I was mistaken. 

Needless to say, her followers came trouncing upon me the next morning. But by then I had gone back into the text and found that she had quoted the English translation of the  Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, better known as the frumer than frumer (holier than thou) abbreviated edition of the Shulchan Aruch, rather than the actual halachic text. And then I asked her group to listen to the Hebrew which contradicted the English translation that she had used to dispute my findings. She read it in Hebrew “if one is seated it is forbidden to stand.” I then asked her to translate it to the group.

The commentary Malbim suggests that, within Korach’s camp, there were impure intentions from the beginning. He therefore writes: “In a controversy pursued for unholy ends...even those who have come together on one side are not really united.” Each is out to cut the other’s throat (Malbim, Numbers 16:1).

Sadly, two years later she was dismissed from her position for “documented child abuse and neglect” of several students in her school. Turns out she was dismissed many years earlier for similar cause in New York.

I pray that, as a community, we continue to join together as we have during this year, with discussion and dialogue, with the “we” being as important as the “I,” and know the value of both in continuing to evolve and build a healthy togetherness.

Fri, June 24 2022 25 Sivan 5782