Tag Archives: Korach

Learning a Lesson from Korach

I often wonder where Korach went wrong. In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korach, Korach and his followers stand up to the leaders of the Israelites. Although he challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority with an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion, the essence of his message is one that we cannot forget. He says:

You are too much! For all of the community is holy and God is in their midst. (Num. 16:3)

Of course this is true! Korach is challenging Moses and Aaron, lest they think that they are any better than anyone else simply because they are leaders. The entire community is God’s people. All of humanity is holy.

I often wonder where we as a society went wrong. Day after day, we wake up to the latest heartbreaking and horrific news stories. Last Wednesday, we woke up to news of the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the hands of two police officers, killed for selling CD’s in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot. His death was filmed on a cell phone. On Thursday, I woke up to news of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer at a traffic stop; the shooting was streamed live on Facebook by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the passenger sit. And we woke up on Friday morning, to hear news of the manhunt and shootout that took place in Dallas, Texas the night before in which five officers were murdered and seven wounded. At a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter action and protest, a man started shooting at officers and at the crowd, putting the whole downtown area in a panic.

Don’t we believe the words of Korach’s challenge? Don’t we believe that the whole community is holy? If so, then it is our responsibility to stand up and ensure that all are considered holy. We need to preach that. We need to act on that. We need to stand up for the holiness of all.

BlackLivesMatterSome suggest that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is somehow anti-police. But that is unfair and inaccurate. It is anti-police brutality. We all should be against police brutality. Some suggest that to support police officers somehow means that one condones the systemic racism and brutality that we have witnessed and seen, that all too often leads to the death of black men and women at the hands of police in this country. That too is unfair and inaccurate. One can – and should – support a movement which stands to protect the holiness of the lives of black men and women and still support our police in their efforts to keep us safe. Gene Testimony Hall, of the #BlackLivesMatter movement wrote that:

Let’s be clear, we said “Black Lives Matter.” We never said “only black lives matter.” In truth, we know that all lives matter. We’ve supported your lives throughout history. Now we need your help with Black Lives Matter for black lives are in danger.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that Korach ultimately failed because he didn’t really believe in the message that he was preaching. He didn’t believe that the whole community was holy. He didn’t believe that God resided within all of us, that we were all created in God’s image. Rather, he only cared about power. He was jealous of the power that Moses and Aaron had and wanted that power for himself. That is why he failed. Because he didn’t care about the true meaning of the message he taught, he was swallowed up by the earth. And it seems that unless we take a stand against systemic racism, then the earth will swallow us all up – we will continue to destroy each other.

Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s followers and supporters, but they refused to meet with him. They cried out their concern that they were taken out of slavery, with a promise to be brought to the land flowing with milk and honey, only to die in the wilderness. Their challenge is an important one: what is the point of freedom if it only leads to us killing each other in the wilderness? May we no longer wander in the wilderness. May we work together, to create a metaphoric Promised Land for us all.

I pray that we no longer wake up to the news of another life taken too soon – a life taken because of racism, bigotry, or hate. We are committed to building a better world – a more peaceful and just world. Yet, day after day, we cry ourselves to sleep with news of another soul taken from this world far too soon. The Psalmist teaches:

We may weep through the night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

May we wake up to a new day, a day full of joy, a day where we take a stand. May we take Korach’s message to heart that all are holy and God resides within each individual. And may we march with our black brothers and sisters for justice, until the essence of Korach’s message is realized.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Standing up in Solidarity

On September 15, 1963, three members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite right outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church was always busy, serving as a local meeting place for civil rights leaders. On Sunday morning, due to worship services and the many activities it hosted, it was particularly packed. At 10:22 AM that morning, the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls, and injuring an additional 22 people. This was domestic terrorism, clearly a racist hate crime.

Over fifty years later, we are left asking what has changed? Last week, a man entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The white man joined congregants for bible study and stayed for over an hour, before opening fire on the African-American men and women present, killing nine, ranging in age from 16-87, including the church’s pastors. In custody, Dylan Roof admitted that he was hoping to start a race war.

We celebrate the advances in society towards equality and yet, we ignore that racism is alive and well in this country. The confederate flag flies high at statehouses in this country and is sold in stores. Highways are named after Southern generals who laid down their lives fighting for slavery. Since this tragic murder, many including South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, have called for the confederate flag — a flag that is a symbol of racism, slavery, and the greatest blemish on this country’s history — to be removed from the statehouse. Wal-mart and Amazon are among the companies that have declared that they will stop selling the confederate flag. While this is progress, albeit too late — after the murder of nine innocent victims, there is much that  our religious leaders and political leaders still must do.

I am proud to be a part of the local South Orange-Maplewood Interfaith Clergy Association. Last Friday, before Shabbat, we organized a last minute vigil at the South Orange NJ Transit train station to mourn, pray, and hope together. Although the vigil was scheduled at the last minute, well over a hundred members of the community attended to cry together and pray together. This was a power experience of unity. Yet, we must do more than pray. We must challenge our leaders.

StandAgainstRacismOrganizations representing the Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism announced this week that they have joined together to declare that this Shabbat will be a Shabbat of Solidarity with the African-American community against racism. I appreciate the sentiment and always stand with my black brothers and sisters against racism. I don’t think you will find anyone in their right mind who wouldn’t agree that what happened at the Emanuel AME Church was a heinous, racist attack. The murderer said so himself! But we cannot only take a stand against racism when such terrible murders happen in this country and ignore the systemic racism that exists in society and that too many deal with on a daily basis. Where was the solidarity Shabbat following the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray? Where was the solidarity Shabbat when Trayvon Martin was killed for wearing a hoodie or young black teens were tackled by police for swimming in McKinney, Texas? The Jewish community — and society as a whole — has been too quiet in standing up to the systemic racism in this country. We all must stand up against racism, but I must ask, what has taken us so long to take a stand?

As we stand in solidarity, the tragedy of Charleston must be a spark that forces us to stand up more. We cannot wait for our leaders to act. We must stand up to our leaders and demand that they act. Last Shabbat, we read Parashat Korach. In this Torah portion Korach challenges Moses’ leadership and attempts to start a rebellion. He embarrasses Moses publicly, fails in his attempt to overthrow the leadership, and ends up being swallowed up by the earth. The Torah commentator Rashi suggests that Korach failed because he was only interested in his own power. Yet, maybe he wasn’t wrong in his efforts, just in his execution. There are times when we must stand up to leadership. There are times when we must stand up to apathy and stand up for what we believe in. We must take what Korach attempted to do and channel it for the right cause — to change society and make a difference in the world. Fifty years later we need to stop standing up a lot more.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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