Parashat Korach, 5769, Art Braufman

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Parshat Korach
June 27, 2009 / 5 Tamuz, 5769
Art Braufman

Numbers 16:1 - 18:32

Shabbat in honor of

our 50th wedding anniversary

Shabbat Shalom.

If you read today’s parsha carefully, you probably found it quite confusing. That’s because many commentators, including Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, have concluded that it’s a composite of several rebellions. The main story line based on the name of the parsha involves Korach, a Levite and a first cousin of Moses and Aaron. He was jealous of Aaron and his descendents because they had been given the priesthood rather than him. The second story line involves Dathan and Aviram from the tribe of Reuven, Jacob’s first born son. They felt that historic rights owed them as members of this first born tribe had been inappropriately turned over to Moses and the priests.

I don’t have time to repeat the whole narrative, but, recall that some of the rebels died by fire and others by being swallowed up inside the earth. The words used to describe the swallowing up by the earth are “Vatiftach haaretz et pe-ah”, “and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them”. This is a very unusual use of the words “Vatiftach et pe-ah”; they are usually used to connote speech.  How interesting, considering it was the mouths of the rebels, their speech that led them to disaster. Avivah Zornberg in her talk about this parsha in Berkeley a couple months ago focused on speech and the theme of communication. I am going to use parts of her talk as the basis for my comments and I credit her with a number of the references that I will mention. As I describe these various aspects, see if you recognize any of them in your own communication patterns.

She refers to a midrash describing Moses’ attempts at conflict resolution. Moses tries to initiate a conversation and pleads with Korach to give up his rebellious ambitions, yet Korach does not answer. The question is why not? The midrash states that Korach was reluctant to answer Moses because he knew that Moses would eventually overwhelm him with his arguments, so he just took leave of Moses without a reply. Like getting ticked off and walking out of a meeting. Moses also tries to initiate dialogue with Dathan and Abiram, and sent a messenger to them to come and talk with him. They too refuse to reason with him and nastily respond, “We will not go up!”. Dr. Zornberg concludes that when dialogue fails, tragedy will prevail - a comment that brought to mind the differences in American foreign policy between the past and the current administration.

Zornberg also referred to Rabbi Nachman’s comments about this dispute. In Hebrew the word for dispute is makhloket, which comes from the root “separation”. Reb Nachman noted that having disputes is inherent with the creation of the world. Creation was only possible when God retracted to create empty space. By this separation, this tzimtzum, God made room for differences and disputes. Zornberg concludes that similar to the tzimtzum, communication which provides empty space permits creation of ideas and of relationships. Remember that point, I will get back to it later.

In a similar vein, Walter Benjamin wrote that “Friendship does not abolish the distance (the space) between human beings, but brings that distance to life.” In other words, friendship does not require avoiding differences, but it is a living relationship based on respect and dialogue. Dialogue, however, can succeed only if both partners obey its rules. By refusing to speak directly with Moshe, the rebels did indeed not go up, but went down into the pit of disaster.

Another characteristic of communication is how each party can use the same words with a different intent. Nehama Leibowitz describes the parallel use of identical words by Moses and the rebels. The rebels challenge Moses and Aaron by saying: “rav lachem, you have gone too far. . . why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Moses responds to their challenge using the same words by saying:“rav lachem b’nei Levi; (No it is you) sons of Levi who have gone too far”. He also says “Hamiat mekem; Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart to be the Levites, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle?” They respond with the same rhetorical question, “Ha-miat (Lachem); Is it not enough (for you Aaron and Moses) that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, do you also have to lord it over us?”. By reflecting Moses’ own words, they demonstrated they weren’t interested in a real dialogue, but wanted to mock him in front of the people. And even worse, they took the words that God used to describe the land of Canaan “a land flowing with milk and honey” and used them to refer to Egypt of all places, the land of slavery. This was a complete reversal of values, calling black white and white black. This language of demagoguery might have been unprecedented then, but unfortunately just as Turi mentioned last week, it seems to be the common language of political discourse today and the venom heard daily on talk radio and TV.

What about Aaron in this story? He was also under attack.

Where was he? He didn‘t say a word! Is that different than the non-answer of Korach? Aaron is considered to be the model of Ohev Shalom - a lover of peace; Rodef Shalom, a pursuer of peace. But, is silence always the best action when it comes to pursuing peace? Does his silence indicate a possible sense of agreement with Korach? Could Dathan and Abiram have interpreted his silence as support for their actions? Just as in the case of the Golden Calf instead of confronting the perpetrators and telling them what they were doing was wrong, Aaron may have been trying not to rock the boat and to maintain Shalom Bayit, peace in the camp. To me, there are times when saying NO is BEST, when rocking the boat is necessary. At some point, trying to please everyone is impossible and can lead to the inability to care for one’s own self interests. After the Holocaust, I hope that we have learned that there is a time for silence and a time to speak up. More frequently these days we hear the evil venomous words of Anti-Semites becoming bolder and louder. We see unbalanced reports about Israel in the media. Do we just let those incidents pass without a word of protest? This is not a time for us to be silent. When Honest Reporting or David Harris from the American Jewish Committee describe abuses by the media and politicians, and they request that we send letters of protest, do we remain silent like Aaron? This brings to mind the adage “God helps those who help themselves”. In this story, when Moses is challenged, he does not stand idly by or wait to get marching orders from Adonoy. He takes the initiative and is not silent. A lesson to take to heart.

In closing, I want to mention that when Lee asked if I wanted to give the drash today, he said he hoped that since Sheila and I are celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary, I will include some marriage tips. I thought it was quite remote that I would find anything about marriage in Korach, so you can imagine my joy when I found a pertinent thought in Rabbi Elie Munk’s commentary on the very first verse. That verse includes in the rebellious group of Korach, Dathan and Abiram a man named “On, O-N, son of Pelet”. Rabbi Munk points out that On was the only one among the rebels who is not mentioned again in the rest of the story. This begs an explanation and indeed the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin discussed this and gives all the credit - to his wife. - She dissuaded him from being involved in the insurrection and thereby saved his life.

Korach’s wife on the other hand had the opposite effect on her husband by leading him into jealousy and reinforcing his stubbornness. The Talmud questions what caused Korach to become so jealous of Moses that he would initiate an insurrection? Going back to parshat Behaalotecha, Hashem commands the Levites to purify themselves by shaving their complete body. When Korach returned to his tent, his wife saw him shaven and taunted him saying that Moses hated him and imposed the law about shaving just to disgrace him. Korach tried to placate her by pointing out that Moses shaved his own children. She wouldn’t relent and replied that Moses only shaved his own children so he could embarrass Korach. The Midrash concludes with words from Proverbs “A wise woman builds her house, but a foolish woman destroys it with her own hands” (and I would say her own mouth).

How fortunate I’ve been that Sheila, my loving wife of 50 years has been my life partner and guided me through many personal decisions that would have led me astray. Together, we have shared life, the good and the not so good. We too have misused words and thrown them around in a mocking way like the words of the rebels against Moses. We too have not always been willing to have a real dialogue with each other. We haven’t always fulfilled the Jewish Marriage Encounter commandment that we should never go to bed angry. We are very fortunate however that we’ve weathered those storms and are thankful to reach this day in good health, with a wonderful loving family, good friends and a wonderful community.

Remember earlier, I asked you to remember the discussion about how space in dialog is critical for true communication and for the power of creativity to flourish. Well, space is also pertinent when thinking about marriage. Alisa, our oldest daughter, years ago gave us a poem by Susan Polis Schultz that I think has characterized our marriage and is worth passing on. And for this, I’d like Sheila to come up here with me. The poem goes like this:


You are mine and
I am yours in love
I am I and
You are you in thought
Independently, we share our lives together.

My father-in-law, zichrono liv’racha, frequently said that my shvieger, my mother-in-law “was the best thing that ever happened to him”. I can only echo his thoughts about my best friend — my life’s partner. I have been a very blessed guy and I can’t say it any better than he did.

Shabbat Shalom.