By Diane Herman, July 6, 2024

אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

La plus ca change, la plus ç’est la meme choses.

There is nothing new under the sun.

As I was preparing this dvar torah on Parashat Korach, I asked myself if it were possible to not speak about politics in our own day. I decided that it isn’t. Just reading the titles of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ weekly Torah Teachings on Parashat Korach, we find: Hierarchy and Politics: The Never-Ending Story; When Truth is Sacrificed to Power; Power versus Influence; The First Populist, etc.

We like to think we are more sophisticated, wiser, than those who lived before the modern era. But what happened in the desert more than 3000 years ago, or at least the story we tell ourselves about what happened, is happening all around us today—not only in our own country, but all around the world. What lessons can we learn from the story of Korach’s rebellion to Moses’ leadership to help us understand and cope with life in the modern world?

Rabbi Sacks calls Korach the first populist and calls populism the politics of anger. It makes its appearance when there is widespread discontent with political leaders, when people feel that heads of institutions are working in their own interest rather than that of the public’s, when there is a widespread loss of trust and a breakdown of the sense of the common good.

How did Korach embody this populist spirit and why were the Israelites particularly susceptible to his populist message? Our parsha comes after the incident of the 10 spies when due to their lack of faith, the people learn that their entire generation will not be able to enter the Promised Land. Their discontent made them open to Korach’s rebellious message.

But before engaging all the people, Korach enlisted allies in his rebellion by appealing to the most prominent people of the tribes. That included the Reubenites who, according to Ibn Ezra, felt disenfranchised from the power they thought they deserved. According to Rashi, this tribe was also camped next to the Levites, Korach’s tribe, making it easier to begin to plot against Moses and Aaron. Isn’t it interesting that their geographic proximity to each other led to their thinking alike.

Next he enlisted those Levites- Aaron’s cousins who were resentful because only Aaron’s immediate family were tasked with the most important priestly duties.

Korach and his allies go before Moses and Aaron and argue that they–Moses and Aaron have raised themselves above the people while in fact all the people are holy because they had directly heard God’s voice at Sinai. Korach pretended to represent a “democratic” view when he was really after power for himself. Midrash Tanchuma fills in some other details of this encounter: Korach taunted Moses by asking if complete garments made with the special blue dye required tsitsit on the corners knowing that they did. He insults Moses by stating that these irrational laws came not from God but from Moses himself. These arguments, our sages argued, were not for the sake of Heaven, not in search of truth, but rather to undermine Moses out of envy, contentiousness and ambition for victory.

Moses’ response is to ask God to demonstrate who really has direct access to God with a test of 250 fire pans of incense.

Moses, still believing that he can use an argument of reason to stop their taking part in the rebellion, calls for the other rebels, Datham and Aviram in order to placate them with peaceful words, according to Midrash. Instead, they first refuse to come before Moses and then make what Rabbi Sacks calls “the most blatant… post-truth claim in the Tanach:” “Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? And now you want to lord it over us!” Their words combine false nostalgia for Egypt, blame Moses for the report of the spies, and accuse him of holding on to leadership for his own personal prestige – all three, outrageous lies.

In the end, the entire congregation joins the rebellion. We know from the parsha how this rebellion is quashed: Moses tells the community to withdraw from the tents of the rebels, calls upon God to open the earth to swallow up the ringleaders. (If you are curious what this would look like, check out the videos of the sinkhole in the middle of a soccer field in Alton, Illinois last week.) God then sends forth a fire to consume the 250 mak-ri-vay hak’toret—the incense  offerers.

You would think that would have been enough to quash the rebellion, but it isn’t. Instead, the entire community rails against Moses and Aaron saying, “You two have brought death to Adonai’s people!” It takes another 14,700 deaths by plague and a magical flowering almond branch before this rebellion finally ends.

Can we learn anything from this story about to how to speak with each other in the face of deep political disagreement and discontent in our own day?  How do you have a reasoned discussion with those who, like Korach and his co-conspirators, want to win arguments using post-truth statements designed to rile up the people? However much we might like deus ex machina to come down and help us, we need a different sort of answer.

This question feels very personal to me. Many of you know that I was just in Seattle visiting my mom who was in the hospital. For a long time, my mom and I haven’t been able to discuss politics at all— except for Israel where there are some things we agree about. When my mom returned home from the hospital, she insisted on showing me commentaries and videos about the current situation in Israel. She started in about how there was no country of Palestine and how we shouldn’t call the Arabs in the West Bank Palestinians. I started to argue back with what I hoped were logical arguments –thinking, like Moses’ encounter with Dathan and Aviram, that reason would change her mind. But then she began lecturing me about Israeli history, Palestinian violence, all things I already knew. My immediate reaction was, “Mom, I lived in Israel for 17 years. I know all that.”  At which point she interrupted me and said, “That doesn’t make you an expert. You’re no expert.” She basically shut down any further conversation after that.

I’m sure you can imagine that I went to bed upset and not a little angry, too. I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed thinking about how the next morning I was going to quietly and calmly tell my mom about how my experiences in Israel- especially having lived through the second Intifada and the second Lebanon war with a son in the navy– did make me something of an expert on the violence Israelis face. At 2:30 in the morning I was typing on my iPad all the things I wanted to say to her so I wouldn’t forget.

I thought about this dvar Torah that I was in the middle of writing, wondering if anything in the story of Korach could help me make an argument b’shaym shamayyim that wouldn’t devolve into both of us trying to win. Did Moses have sleepless nights like this trying to figure out how to talk to those who were questioning his authority? Whatever argument he came up with—it didn’t work. What made me think I could be more successful than Moses?

The next morning, while waiting for the right time to start the conversation, and still filled with frustration and anger, I thought about this quote from Ghandi, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” In other words, forbearance is better than confrontation. And then I heard Larry’s voice from afar whispering in my ear, “Don’t do it.” And in the end—I didn’t. I decided that forbearance was the right response to my mom. Afterall, she is my mom. And no matter what I would say, she wouldn’t have heard me anyway.

And then I remembered something else. Just before I went to Seattle, I joined a volunteer session at OBKLA- Our Big Kitchen Los Angeles putting together meals for people who don’t have enough to eat. Joining together with others in this act of kindness helped me to feel much better about the current state of the world that often has me frustrated and angry.

So, instead of confronting my mom and continuing the argument, I decided to spend the morning helping her–we cleaned out her closet, I did her laundry, and I went grocery shopping for her. By the time I left for home my anger was gone.

So, what have I learned and what is the message of my drash? First, you should all go volunteer at OBKLA, on the corner of Pico and Bedford. There you can join with other people to prepare and package hundreds of kosher meals for the food insecure of Los Angeles. It doesn’t matter what your politics, your race, your religious orientation—just that you are doing an act of kindness along with others. It won’t change the world, but I promise it will make you feel better about it.

Second, Moses wasn’t able to convince Korach or the other rebels to stop the rebellion- not with kind words and not with logic. He needed God’s help for that. The Nobel prize-winning economist, Herbert Simon said, “You do not change people’s minds by defeating them with logic.” But if we can’t change people’s minds, how can we, ourselves stop feeling angry when all around us we see the politics of anger? Perhaps the best we can do for ourselves is to practice forbearance and kindness in the face of political arguments lo b’shaym shamaayim and engage in personal acts of kindness. It worked for me.

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