I believe I do an okay job of keeping politics at bay while at Temple. The vast majority of the messages I share are ambiguous enough to make the reader comfortable with what I am trying to convey, and not feel as though I am making a personal slight to their beliefs. This week, however, I feel that the parallels to the current situation in Washington cannot be ignored.
Korach, the namesake of this week’s parsha, has gathered 250 Israelites to challenge Moses and Aaron.
They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”
Upon hearing this, Moses fell on his face! He retorts Korach’s statement and tells the mob they have gone too far as well. Moses, in an effort to squelch the uprising, tells Korach and his followers to come in the morning to the tent of meeting with fire pans and incense and to let the Eternal choose who should be the holy one. Moses points out that the community of Israel has been granted so much favor thus far but the sons of Levi just want more. To spare you a lot more back and forth, everyone shows up for the showdown in the morning, and God punishes Korach and his followers by opening the Earth beneath them and swallowing them. They are literally wiped off the map. The remaining Israelites are convinced Moses has brought God’s wrath and God now wants to punish them further. A plague now befalls the community and another 14,700 people died due to Korach’s uprising.
I want to mention again, that I try very hard not to bring in politics. I am also not a big conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe there is a group sitting in a smokey room pulling “the strings” which make things happen in our world. However, over the past few weeks, our representatives have been rehashing the gory details of an uprising that occurred on January 6, 2021. The mob in the Torah and in 2021 were not happy with the direction of our leadership. Both challenged those making the final decisions and, sadly, both groups met violent endings. I also find it extremely coincidental that a plague was cast upon the Israelites and many perished. For those who have been watching COVID-19 numbers, you will recall that there was a spike in late January 2021. Again, it’s eerily coincidental. And, thank you for allowing me a moment just to share my observations.
I would hate to leave you on an unsettling note, so please indulge me as I share a quick teaching. There is a midrash that envisions Moses and Korach debating commandments. Moses is taking the commandments more literally while Korach is questioning them. The first topic they debate connects to the instruction to add blue threads or tzitzit/fringes to the corners of one’s clothes, the passage that concluded last week’s Torah portion. According to the midrash, Korach hears this commandment and immediately rises to protest. Korach said to Moses, “In the case of a tallit/prayer shawl that is entirely blue, would one be exempt from the requirement of tzitzit?” Moses said to him, “No, even such a tallit is required to have tzitzit.” Korach replies, “Would not a tallit that is all blue exempt itself, when four threads are enough to exempt it?!”
Korach then went on to issue a second challenge. “In the case of a house that is full of Torah scrolls, would one be exempt from the requirement of mezuzah?” Moses replies to him, “No, such a house is still required to have a mezuzah.” Korach questions, “How is it that the whole Torah has two hundred and seventy-five portions and they do not suffice to exempt the house, and yet the two portions that are in the mezuzah do!?”
While at first glance, one might be tempted to see Korach’s challenge as a benign exercise in rabbinic argument, something far more sinister is going on. Not only do Korach’s objections fall outside the realm of legitimate rabbinic argument — no ancient Sage would ever challenge the clear directives of divine commandment — they expose an attitude that denies core Torah teachings. Both of Korach’s challenges have the same structure. Korach rejects the notion that something small, either tzitzit or mezuzah, could be more important than something big. In opposing tzitzit to a blue tallit and mezuzah to a houseful of scrolls, the midrash picks up on Korach’s tactic of putting Moses and Aaron in opposition to “all of the community.” According to Rabbi Hira Wasserman, Ph.D., “Korach invokes the whole, promoting the general over the specific, the greater over the lesser. He fails to recognize that in Torah, the detailed particulars make all the difference. In the realm of ritual as in the domain of justice, the demands of righteousness are precise.” Like in the case of what has occurred since January 6, 2021, we need to look at specific details to better understand how we can promote justice moving forward.