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Leadership, Love, and Life

06/26/2020 01:47:21 PM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Korach, the story of a man who gathered supporters and challenged Moses’s authority. We had a very interesting conversation about this in our Torah study this week, and in the end I think I came around to understanding the traditional commentaries on this parasha and God’s extreme reactions. However, I still want to push against it a bit.

            Traditionally, Korach is seen as either trying to usurp Moses’s power or as trying to subvert all of the mitzvot and the foundation of Judaism. Commentaries and midrashim expand the conversations between Korah and Moses to show just what a wicked guy he really was. But the Torah itself doesn’t show us that. It simply shows us that Korach accused Moses and his family of elevating themselves too much above others, despite the fact that “all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst” (Numbers 16:3).

            The inverse is depicted in our Haftarah, which comes from the Book of Samuel. The populist opinion this time is that we do need a leader, a king. Despite his own misgivings and God’s explicit disappointment in the people’s demands for a human king, Samuel crowns Saul as the first King of Israel. In both stories, a theme of concern over putting too much stock in a leader remains consistent.

            Whether or not Korach and his posse were correct to challenge Moses’s leadership, whether or not the Israelites later were correct to demand Saul’s leadership, I think the message is clear in both the demands and the responses from God: some form of leadership is necessary. There are people with more knowledge or skill in specific topics that make them strong leaders, while others may lack the information or understanding to much healthy choices on certain matters. Leadership is a part of the structure on which society thrives. As we’ve been discussing in our Sunday adult ed classes, this is why Reform Judaism has a Union and issues responsa to offer guides to living a good Jewish life, even though Reform Judaism is all about personal autonomy and not a strict adherence to halakha.

            At the same time, humans are inherently faulty. We all make mistakes, have personal agendas, and are likely to harm others from time to time. We cannot put total faith into any one human leader, even if he speaks with God “peh-el-peh” (face to face) as Moses did or he even if he is tall and handsome and charismatic as Saul was (don’t ask me why those are leadership qualities, but the Book of Samuel talks about Saul’s height a lot so clearly it mattered at the time).

            It is up to each of us to challenge authority when we think it has gone too far, and reign in aimlessness or lawlessness when it has gone too far. We must educate ourselves and think critically about facts that face our communities, listen with empathy to the challenges that come from those who feel underrepresented in leadership roles, and open our hearts to the guidance of the Divine wisdom.

            May each of us learn to challenge the status quo a little more, and may we build democratic societies that would honor the Divine in our midst.

            A bit further on in the parasha, we see God punishing all the people of Israel with a plague, even after the Earth has already swallowed up Korach and his ilk. The people are outraged about the Earth swallowing up so many people so the next day they continue to accuse Moses and Aaron of arrogance and unchecked power. God is getting sick of having to explain that Moses is God’s special guy and everybody else needs to lay off, so a plague arrives to wipe out the rest of the nation.

            Though Moses is also sick of being verbally attacked, he certainly does not want God to kill everyone. Thinking fast, he tells Aaron to put some of the altar fire – the aish tamid – into a fire pan and bring it out to the community to make expiation for them. The Torah then says, “[Aaron] stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked” (Numbers 17:13). Many more died that day, but Aaron arguably saved hundreds of thousands from unnecessarily succumbing to the plague.

            On Monday, I was on a Zoom call with fellow clergy to discuss what each of our shuls were doing for High Holy Days and how we might need to adapt some of the liturgy. Unetaneh Tokef came up as a prayer that may be particularly hard this year for many. This is the prayer that tells us, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water … But repentance, charity/justice, and prayer temper the severe decree.” This prayer implies a theology of direct judgement and punishment for human actions and that things like illness, natural disasters, or being eaten by a wild beast are brought on by human behavior and divine will, something most modern Jews do not believe. How will we hear those words this year, during a pandemic, after many months of climbing death tolls? Who will stand between the living and the dead for us and shield us from this plague?

           In a sermon about this prayer written for Rosh HaShanah 5775, Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes, “Often in Jewish tradition, “love” and “truth” are seen as conflicting qualities; the one demanding justice, the other, lenience and compassion.” Much of the High Holy Day liturgy reflects this dichotomy, but a running theme is also that God holds both of these qualities in the balance. If we are to hold ourselves up to the task of honoring the Divine spark in all of humanity, we must also find ways of doing both. As Cornel West famously said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

            Each of us can be the shield standing between the living and the dead. Wearing masks, keeping our distance, washing our hands frequently, and continuing our online worship until this plague is checked is an act of love and justice. Love and compassion for those who may be susceptible to getting deathly ill from this virus; justice in terms of keeping the wider community safe, honoring the lessons learned from those who died unnecessarily from this disease, and recognizing truth in science.

            I know it is getting tiring to stay in quarantine, and the reopening of public spaces is enticing, but please remember that this pandemic is not actually over. Enjoy some time in the beautiful sunshine and perhaps share a meal with some loved ones, but keep your distance, wear your mask unless you’re actively eating, and continue to restrict your general time with others outside your household. May we all be safe and shielded from this plague, and may we make choices that seal us in the Book of Life every day. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781