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Korach 5782 ~ July 1, 2022

Our Torah reading for this Shabbat distinguishes the likes of Korach from that of Moses. What differentiates the two of them is that Korach, as the midrash declares, was a man who sought glory for himself on a level that was self-aggrandizing and narcissistic.  Korach’s desire is unclear as to whether he wanted to replace his cousin Aaron as the Kohen Hagadol, the High Priest, or whether his intentions were to wrestle the leadership away from that of Moses.

Rashi shares with us that Korach’s  method was to entice the crowd that gathered around him in a manner that fostered a continuing dissension against Moses and Aaron. His words were ones that had the intention of humiliating Moses.   His words were not only disrespectful, but a rallying point for the rest of the community, bringing them to also challenge Moses and Aaron the next morning.

When God witnesses the events, the Torah tells us that Hashem protects both Aaron and Moshe under a cloud. Later during this rebellion, Moses “falls on his face” in a very humble manner and in respect of Hashem. His desire is to protect both Hashem’s reputation and the people from an unkindly punishment from God, rather than himself alone. What we gain from Moses in this story is his ability to comprehend not only his role and place in history, but also his humility as a person and a leader. At the same time, as the story continues, he understands when leadership must take a strong stance for the benefit of the people, not himself.

This past Wednesday morning, a Moshe type figure,  Professor David Weiss-Halivni,  passed away in Jerusalem. Professor Halivni will always be remembered as an unbelievable Talmudic scholar and teacher to many rabbis and others at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University and later at Hebrew University and Bar Ilan. Some of you may remember that Professor Halivni was a childhood friend of Elie Wiesel, z”l.  

I will always remember him as an extremely humble individual. I remember watching Professor David Weiss-Halivni daven at morning and mincha services at the Seminary. He always stood with one hand clasping the other, with head slightly bowed, in a very humbling manner. He joined my class during our year of study in Israel and spent time getting to make each one of us feel his presence and sense his genuine caring.  He once visited me in my congregation on Long Island and provided me with some extremely sound advice which I continue to use even to this day. When students took their proficiency exams in Talmud, Professor Weiss-Halivni always made the student feel that he cared, and never humiliated them, even with a wrong answer. I personally stayed away from another professor’s class specifically because he did the opposite. At  graduation, as I approached to receive my ordination, that professor turned to the Chancellor and asked how was it possible that Kideckel was graduating, never having been in his Talmud class.  The response might have been “perhaps Moshe vs Korach.”

A colleague shared a piece from a High Holy Day sermon which I believe best shares the message of parashat Korach and provides us with the lesson of why Moses succeeded, despite the insurrection of a Korah:

"In 1985 my teacher, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, was awarded Israel’s coveted Bialik Prize. Accepting the award, he spoke of his train-ride to Auschwitz forty years earlier. He described the horrors of that journey into hell. The train reached its destination. They were ordered off the train at Auschwitz. The teenage boy David, in the midst of the nightmare, as he was being separated from his family forever, heard his aunt Ethel, a young woman in her twenties, call out to him: “– The Torah, over which you have labored so diligently –  it shall protect you.”

“I am that boy,” Rabbi Halivni recalled. “And it was the Torah that watched over me from one death camp to another. It is that Torah that still watches over me today.”

David Weiss Halivni had much about which to question God; the loss of his entire family, the loss of his childhood.” He wrote as introduction to Sources and Traditions, his multi-volume Talmud commentary. “I survived alone to tell, to remind and to demand answers.” These very words are reproduced near the entrance to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Rabbi Halivni had much about which to demand answers. But he also had Torah. God’s gift to Israel. The key, in very specific ways, to his survival. The reason, when all else would have suggested giving up, to persevere.”

Shabbat shalom.

Thu, April 25 2024 17 Nisan 5784