Shabbat Greetings

Yesterday, many of us celebrated our nation’s 248th anniversary of our independence from British rule. Barbecues, sunning at the beach, and watching fireworks are just some of the activities many of us enjoyed. While relaxing (or catching up on our work), few of us thought about the origins of this secular holiday: the victory of rebels against a ruling power. We probably won’t consider that one of the leaders of this rebellion went on to become our nation’s first president, and that some of his fellow rebels became presidents as well. They were honored and respected. Many complimentary books have been written about them. These men who played an important role in the colonial revolution fared a lot better than did Korach and his supporters, the rebels featured in this week’s Torah portion, Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32).

Korach was a man  who questioned authority, a rebel who spoke up for the Levites and their desire to have the same rights and responsibilities as the Kohanim. Moses confronts the rebels by proposing a test: “Offer incense before God, and see if God will accept your offering.” God rejects their offering, and the earth splits open and consumes Korach and his followers. 

Jewish tradition perceives Korach as the paradigm of demagogues; individuals who seek power for its own sake, and don’t really care about the people they are supposed to serve. What is somewhat startling is that the children of Korach don’t seemingly carry any demerit upon their own selves because of the sins of their father. And instead, the children of Korach receive the honor of having in the Hebrew Scriptures 11 of the 150 psalms attributed to their authorship. That the children don’t “carry” the sins of their father is in, of itself, a powerful message.

We are poignantly reminded that every individual carries upon themselves their own responsibilities; we own our own words and actions; what we do or do not do in any particular situation. A midrash is told that highlights this lesson for us.

The rabbinic legend describes how it was the children of Korach were sitting by their father when it came to be that Moses was walking by them. Each of Korach’s children knew how their father felt about the leader of the Jewish people, and each had to confront their own conscience as to whether to rise, as custom dictated, for their leader, or remain seated as their father most certainly was going to do. In this moment, each child understood that their father would be insulted if they physically stood up for Moses; he would perceive their own actions as a violation of the Fifth Commandment; to honor one’s parents. And, the reality was that is they rose in Moses’ presence they would be dishonoring their father.

But, the sons of Korach understood that “standing up” for something, when it’s the right thing to do; is more important than the feelings of an individual who believed in something that was wrong. So without conversations, reaching a consensus of opinion, each child on their own “stood up” for Moses. Psalm 45 records this action when it opens with the verse: “Their hearts led them the right way.”

To love God with “all of our heart” means being willing to do, or not do, because it’s the right action to take, and not because it’s an easier choice to make. Historically, Jews survive and thrive because we are willing to truly love God with “all of our heart.” No matter the convenience of immoral options, we remain loyal to the teachings of our ethical monotheism; the belief in one God that teaches us from right and wrong; and commands us to do what is right. Do what is right; no matter what; was a lesson that Korach’s children embraced.

There have always been American Jews who have questioned the status quo, in the name of democracy, justice and equality. Many such people bravely led the Labor Movement. A disproportionate number of Jews also worked passionately for the civil rights of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, marched against the Vietnam War, and led the Women’s Liberation Movement. I have always been proud of fellow Jews such as Samuel Gompers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Bella Abzug, who gave their hearts and souls to the cause of freedom and justice.

Sometimes it is hard to trust our leaders, in the secular and the Jewish worlds. However, it is important for all of us to recognize that we all have roles to play in making our world a holy and just place to live. May we continue the work of those who worked so passionately so that more of us could be free, and may we act in a way that reflects our holiness. Do we “stand-up” for what’s right, even when others put pressure on us to remain seated?

The children of Korach succeeded in this Divine challenge; how are we doing?