Korach and his followers swallowed by the earth.
From the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. Labeled for noncommercial reuse.
While in some respects the past week has been an incredible display of American democracy, this transfer of power that we’ve all witnessed has been ugly. President Trump’s first week has been filled with pomp, circumstance, several executive orders, oaths of office and lots of protests, outrage and noise. Tempers are running high. Lines have been drawn. And plans have been made to obliterate those on the other side of these lines.
Immigration, border security, healthcare, abortion, pipelines, freedom of the press, fake news, crowd sizes, Palestinian aid, the capital of Israel, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice – these are just a few of the issues that the first week of the Trump presidency have thrust into the national spotlight. While we should be talking about these issues, I’m becoming more and more disheartened by our inability to do so. We’re either too angry, too boastful or too fearful to engage in a productive conversation about politics. This, sadly, will do nothing to help strengthen our divided nation.
I’ve heard and read too many stories over the past few days which capture not just how divided we are as a country, but how determined we are to silence those who feel differently than we do about the President and his new administration. A good friend of mine left her home the other morning to find that the “Hate Has No Home Here” sign that she and her children put up in their front yard had been covered over with a Trump campaign sign. Someone else I know was turned away from the Women’s March in D.C. by an organizer who, after asking her about her position on abortion, told her that “this protest is not for you.” If you’ve had the guts to keep on top of the news this week, you know that these stories are not in any way unique and are tame in comparison to other incidents. The attempts to push aside, shame and threaten those with different opinions are a national plague that flies in the face of our democratic values – values that ironically made last week’s transfer of power possible.
This divisive plague is nothing new. For centuries, it’s reared its ugly head. It appears in one of the more troubling stories of the Torah, the story of Korach. A rebel who stood up to Moses, Korach questions Moses’ right to rule over the Israelites and leads a mutiny against him. As Judaism encourages us to challenge authority and take a stand when we perceive that justice is not being pursued, one might think that Korach and his willingness to confront Moses would be praised. Those who are familiar with the story, however, know that this is anything but the case. God intervenes and ensures that Korach and his supporters are not only defeated, but swallowed up by the earth, never to be seen again.
Why would the Torah, which teaches us to pursue justice with all of our heart and soul, include a story that depicts the horrid demise of one who challenges Moses? The answer lies in the words that Korach uses to accuse Moses and his brother Aaron of being poor leaders: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire community are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst.”
Nechama Leibowitz, the late renowned Torah commentator and scholar, draws our attention to what appears to be Korach’s grammatically incorrect accusation: “the entire community are all holy.” Leibowitz states that this is no grammatical error. It’s deliberate and the reason Korach was obliterated. He doesn’t see the Israelite community as a single entity, but rather as a group of individuals – each one being driven by their own concerns and needs. The well-being of the community as a whole doesn’t matter to him. Central to Judaism is the teaching that we can’t “separate ourselves from the community.” Without our community, we’re nothing. But Korach and his fellow rebels, they see themselves as separate and distinct from the community. All that matters to them is what they deem to be important, not what will be best for all people. Because of this, Leibowitz calls Korach and his cohorts:
…a band of malcontents, each harboring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron and hoping thereby to attain their individual desires…
Wherever we call home, whether it be in South Florida, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else in America, many of us are unfortunately part of at least one “band of malcontents” these days. And within our respective bands, we’re harboring our “own personal grievances” against President Trump and his supporters or against those who don’t support the President. We’re “animated by individual pride and ambition” and hope to overthrow those who don’t agree with us and attain our own “individual desires.”
But the Torah, our Judaism, is asking us to take a different approach – an approach that challenges us to take the focus off of ourselves and put it on our nation. While it certainly doesn’t feel like it right now, we’re part of one national community. Korach wasn’t swallowed up by the earth because he challenged Moses. He wasn’t swallowed up by the earth because he questioned Moses’ ability to lead the people. He was swallowed up by the earth because he forgot that he had a responsibility to act in a way that supports the best interests of all people, the entire community, the whole nation. He forgot that he did not live in isolation and his concerns were not necessarily the concerns of his neighbor. And so, as he pursued power, he made it all about himself. He failed to appreciate that he was part of something much bigger, much more complicated than just himself. He failed to appreciate that he was part of a community. And to highlight his failure, the Torah dramatically removes him from the community that he overlooked.
Korach’s shocking departure is a reminder that we don’t live in isolation. As Jews, it’s imperative that, despite our differences, we strive to be part of klal yisrael – a united people. As Americans, it’s just as imperative that we strive to be part of a unified, albeit diverse, country. Given that we’re part of a pluralistic nation, this is a tremendous challenge. But the story of Korach pushes us to meet this challenge – to act in a way that preserves community. This doesn’t mean that we can’t protest or disagree with each other. It does mean, however, that when we do so, we act with the best interests of our country in mind. This requires us to make room in the public arena for dissenting voices. It means that in this arena we don’t attempt to silence, shut out, shame or threaten others simply because they see the world differently than we do. It demands that we boldly stand up for what we believe in without tossing aside integrity, dignity, respect and poise. It obligates us to rise above Korach and those like him who are motivated purely by what will be best for them and not what will bring about national healing and strength. It calls upon each of us to be what our tradition calls a mensch, a descent, honorable human being. From the ancient book of teachings, Pirke Avot, we’re taught: “in a place where there are no mensches (or menschen), strive to be a mensch.” This is not easy. But within our national community today, mensches are seriously lacking. Within our respective bands of malcontents, we want to continue raging, gloating, shaming and silencing. Within these bands, we feel safe. But a few of us need to find the courage to look beyond the safety of our bands, strive to discover the bonds that link us together, band to band, citizen to citizen, and empower us to come together as a united nation. It will take some mensches to do just this. Will you be one of them?