Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Korach

I love Pirke Avot. It is the earliest Jewish book of ethics. Ok, many will argue that the Bible is the earliest, but it is not uniquely Jewish. The text of Pirke Avot (literally the Portions of the Sages) includes teachings well over 2000 years old, and yet, they still motivate our sense of holiness and morality in the 21st Century. One of my favorite and most challenging texts is as follows:

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation (Pirke Avot 5:17).

Hillel and Shammai were great sages who agreed on almost nothing, but their debates led people to engage and to think. Still, today, we engage in some of the debates between the two that still play out in our daily lives. Disagreeing is never a problem in my world, being disagreeable is. So Shammai and Hillel led schools that a healthy dose of respect for their tradition and so, even when they disagreed, both were trying to seek God.

The text understands that Korach’s story served a very different purpose. Korach’s story is this week’s Torah portion. In a nutshell, Korah is a Levite, and as such, is entitled/obligated to religious tasks in serving the people. In his eyes, Moses and Aaron seem to have forgotten that there are other Levites, as they took on all priestly and prophetic responsibilities/entitlements for themselves. As the story plays out, God ordained that Moses and Aaron should be in charge, even while others would serve under them. Korach rebels. He argues that Aaron and Moses have taken too much authority on themselves and not engaged others who are supposed to share in the task.

Rabbis debate whether or not Korach had a valid argument. Some argue that he was right and the text depict how unfair things can be when, even being right, the earth opened and swallowed his entourage. Others argue that since God ordained what God ordained, Korach blasphemed and deserved the wretched fate.

Whether Korach was right or not is not, in my thought, the reason God got upset. My concern (and I think God’s), is in how Korach presented his case. Right or wrong, he came at Moses and Aaron threatening them. Had Korach taken Moses and Aaron aside to have this conversation, they might have agreed with him. No, in open rebellion, Korach sought to humiliate Moses, Aaron, and God. I have never seen a controversy end well that began with threats of rebellion.

People make good decisions, and we make challenging ones. The measure of our humanity is not so much in the decision, but in how we make it and how we play it out. In even the non-political world (if it is separable) we debate politically. Politics is about winning at all costs in the moment of battle. We need to engage more and sometimes even be thankful for the different opinions at the table. We have a lot to learn from each other, even in our disagreement. The moment that a conversation begins in attack mode, we condemn society to fall into the abyss. God opened the earth to swallow the assailants.

I am speaking about “derekh eretz;” the Jewish concept of decency and “mensch-hood.” The goal of faith is not to mandate consensus around any one idea. No, faith must give us the security and courage to face even the most challenging of situations with our eyes focused on the damage or healing that our reaction might produce. Another favorite text from Pirke Avot (2:14): “In a world where no one seems to be behaving humanely; strive to be humane.” Works for me! Shabbat Shalom.