Occasionally, one of my sons doesn’t like my final decision and he quotes a line from a Taylor Swift song, “Don’t be a hater Mom,” he says. Who realized that Taylor Swift knew Torah, specifically parashat Korach? Her popular song, “Shake it Off,” proclaims, “… and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate ….” (as some Pittsburghers heard her sing just last week at Heinz Field).
We witness a great deal of dissention, one could even say senseless hatred, within this parshah. Korach, three others and 250 chieftains of the community of Israel rise up against Moses and Aaron. Charging them with the complaint, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
We read a few sentences later that the punishment for their actions and words is severe. Why is that? Weren’t these men just saying that we were all created as equals and God is with each of us? What did they do that was deserving of such a punishment – of being swallowed up into the earth along with their households?
Korach and his followers didn’t ask Moses and Aaron to sit down over a cup of tea and have a calm, civil conversation, Israelite to Israelite. Examining the text, we read that Korach and the others took themselves and Vayakumu lifnai rose up against Moses and Aaron. Not to mention that they brought along 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.
Moses responds, “Come morning, God will make known who is His and who is holy … take your fire pans and tomorrow put fire and incense in them … offer them before God. Then the man whom God chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!”
God strongly supports Moses and Aaron. God advises them to “Stand back/separate yourselves from the midst of this community so that I may annihilate them this instant.”
Reflecting on these individual’s actions, one might surmise that Korach did not handle himself well. Not only was he disrespectful; he was unwise. Did Korach really think God would abandon God’s chosen leaders in favor of him and his followers?
However, one might also conclude that Moses’ actions were not thoroughly thought through or in the best interest of his community. Commentary in the Eitz Chayim Chumash explains, “It would seem that Moses is showing the strain of having to deal with one episode of complaint and faithlessness after another. With each successive incident, he becomes shorter tempered with the people he is leading.”
Moses was angry, and like Korach, he lost his temper and said things, one can imagine, he may have regretted later. The Talmud, our Jewish Book of Law, written 1,500 years ago teaches us, “The world exists on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.”
We are a small people. At last look, we are approximately 13.3 million few and 13.3 million strong. We must not fight among ourselves; not within our home communities or within the Jewish people as a whole. Recently, an unfortunate incident occurred within Israel that highlights this counterproductive division among our people in Israel. Excerpts from the following letter, written and sent by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and much of the leadership of the Conservative Movement, to the president of Israel, explains this untoward event.
Dear President Rivlin,
With great sadness and with deep sorrow, we have no choice but to write this letter to you.
About one month ago, the Mayor of Rehovot ordered the cancellation of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities on 48 hours’ notice, following six months of the children’s preparation, simply because it was to take place within the city’s Masorti (Conservative) synagogue. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah program is unique in Israel, adapted to the needs of children with disabilities and has successfully operated for over 20 years.
The Mayor ordered that the ceremony be held in an Orthodox synagogue and led by an Orthodox Rabbi and required the parents to sign a consent form confirming that the children would have to relearn the ceremony in its new version.
The Office of Diaspora Affairs, initiated a compromise two weeks ago whereby the ceremony would be held in your residence and jointly officiated by Rabbi Mikie Goldstein and Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau. In a meeting at the President’s Residence, with your staff and a representative of the Office of Diaspora Affairs, every detail of the planned ceremony was finalized. At that stage, the parents were informed, to their joy and relief, that their children would be able to have this unique program, designed to help children with great difficulties in verbal communication.
We were then utterly shocked to receive the ceremony program sent last week by the Executive Director of the President’s Residence to the Executive Director of the Diaspora Affairs Office, eliminating the plan to conduct the ceremony according to this special program, but rather to be officiated exclusively by an Orthodox rabbi. The President’s Residence adopted the very same stance as that of the Mayor of Rehovot.
Mr. President, you are denying a specialized program for severely disabled children that has a 20-year record, acknowledged by top professionals in the fields that serve them, of helping children with their core life and learning challenges. It is painful to say it, but this is an act of cruelty in which disabled children and their parents are being denied a service that would help them, and the sole reason for this denial is the contempt of Israel’s leaders for the sponsors of this program, the worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.
“… For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Is it fathomable that the Official Residence of the President of the State of Israel cannot be considered a house of prayer for all Jews?
We learn from the rabbis the second temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, within the Jewish community. Let us learn from our ancestors. We must not divide ourselves into camps, rising us against one another, fighting within our own ranks. We must respect one another and work together to build and strengthen klal yisrael, the entirety of the people of Israel.
In our parshah, our biblical leaders wasted their opportunity to improve their people’s lives. Today we have more than an opportunity; we have an obligation to work together as a Jewish people. Each of us must have the right to worship as we see fit and to experience and to practice our Jewish faith as we so choose. We may walk different paths up the mountain but we are all on the way to see the same God at the top.
Rabbi Amy Greenbaum serves as rabbi of Beth Israel Center in Pleasant Hills and as the director of education for Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.