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Watch the 2018 High Holy Day sermons!

 

Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

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Koraḥ - Rebellion

Numbers 16:1-18:32

“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 Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?” - Numbers 16:3

 

P’shat – Explanation

This passage recounts the most dramatic challenge to Moses and Aaron’s leadership in the Torah. What is more, the Rabbis viewed Korah’s revolt as a rebellion not only against Moses and Aaron, but against God’s authority as well. When Korah, a Levite and a relative of Moses and Aaron no less, makes the accusation, “You have gone too far,” it literally means “you have gotten too big,” or perhaps “you have too much power and prestige.” In other words, Korah himself lusts for power and self-aggrandizement. Like many demagogues to come, he couches this challenge in populist terms (“For all the community are holy…”), as if he is only concerned for the people, and obfuscates the true goal of his attack: a grab for personal power.

In the Mishnah, this story also becomes the archetype of all illegitimate controversies. Mishnah Avot 5:17 teaches, “Every controversy that is for the sake of Heaven, its outcome will endure. And every controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven, its outcome will not endure. Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Korah and his entire congregation.”

The Rabbis understood Korah’s attack as the epitome of egotism.  Moses, on the other hand, was the exact opposite: a hero with humility. Both men would become role models—negative and positive—for the Jewish people for all time.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“The demagogue compounds the fears and the baser passions of people. The selfless leader compounds their hopes and generous impulses.” - Mordecai M. Kaplan

Kaplan’s 102-year-old life spanned nearly the entire twentieth century.  Often, he warned of the dangers posed by rising demagogues: “Beware of people who combine massive intellectual ignorance with brilliant powers of salesmanship.” [i]

In this passage he recognizes that demagogues such as Korah preach to people’s fears and lowest instincts, whereas leaders such as Moses and Aaron encourage the most generous impulses in the human spirit.  Seeing in the Communism of his day an echo of the self-righteous hypocrisy personified by Korah, he wrote, “The main evil of authoritarianism is that it purges human life of its idealistic hopes” and “Totalitarian regimes, both political and religious, add insult to injury by demanding not only that you have faith in their doctrines, but that you be rationally convinced of their truth.”[ii] .

The best forms of government and religion, he professed, placed trust in the human mind and spirit. “Virtue,” he also explained, is the “use and distribution of power which leaves no one powerless.” [iii]

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Finding God Where Love Appears

The minute they said “I do” I felt the weight of history shifting.

It was subtle and powerful. Just five of us in my study – the two men, their daughter, their best friend as witness, and me.

It wasn’t actually their wedding. Their “real” wedding had taken place eight years earlier, with the catering, the band, the requisite one hundred friends in attendance.

This was different, momentous. And yet what made it so was something very ordinary, something I’d done hundreds of times over the forty-plus years I’d officiated at Jewish weddings. I asked the witness to sign her name and address on the marriage license and then affixed my own signature.

Now, though, the world of that wedding couple was forever changed. From this point in time, the State of California would hereby recognize them as legally married. This had major implications for them. For instance, if sometime in the future one of them became too ill to make his own medical decisions, his spouse would now have the legal right to make those decisions. 

This sea change in California’s acceptance of gay and lesbian marriage did not come easily. After initially being signed into law, many powerful voices rose up to stop the law dead in its tracks. Like Korah of old, they claimed to be speaking literally in the name of God as they denounced same-sex marriage as a violation of God’s moral commandments. Ultimately, religious leaders with true moral courage, combined with people of every race and religion, joined together in the conviction that every human being is created in the image of God and outshone those voices of fear. Together they carried their fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court and ultimately succeeded, by championing human dignity and rights for all.

             

 

 

[i] Kaplan, Not So Random Thoughts, 16.

[ii] Kaplan, Not So Random Thoughts, 36.

[iii] Kaplan, Not So Random Thoughts, 35.

 

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Sat, June 12 2021 2 Tammuz 5781