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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Korach

PARSHAT KORACH
(5776)
CONFLICT
“They gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3)
I am writing while staring at the Rocky Mountains. I came to Colorado to perform a wedding on a high, beautiful, Western Colorado ranch. I am returning to perform two more weddings in Florida. While visiting Colorado, I got into a long conversation with the parents of the groom for another wedding, this one being performed by another rabbi.
This couple wanted to know how I counsel brides and grooms before the big day. I tell them to plan the wedding, but more important, to plan the marriage. I talk about money, family, children, religion, communication, and the meaning of marriage. And I also talk about conflict; I have never seen a marriage without conflict. Couples need to know how to argue in a way that does not threaten the marriage.
Many years ago I took a five day course in family mediation. I felt that I needed the skills necessary to help couples dealing with conflict. It became extremely useful in the work I have done over the years. The one insight I remember is to find some area where two people in conflict can agree. For example, can a couple going through a divorce agree that children need both a mother and a father? (If they cannot agree on that, we are in deep trouble.) Mediation can be extremely helpful, whether a couple is trying to save their marriage or heading for divorce court.
I learned another insight which can be applied to this week’s portion. Never try mediation when dealing with an abusive situation. When one party in a conflict is trying to show who has the power and who is in control, mediation does not work. Conflicts built on power and control in the long term will come to no good.
This week we read the story of the great rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses. On the surface it seems like a disagreement about Torah. The Midrash goes into great detail of Korach arguing with Moses on points of Jewish law. But a more careful reading shows that the real conflict was a power play. Korach was jealous of Moses’ power and felt he was more deserving. It was clearly a conflict not for the sake of heaven.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches, “Any conflict which is for the sake of heaven will come to a good end. Any conflict which is not for the sake of heaven will not come to a good end. What is a conflict for the sake of heaven? The conflict between Hillel and Shammai. What is a conflict not for the sake of heaven? The conflict between Korach and his followers (against Moses.) (Avot 5:17) The portion is really about a power struggle between Moses and Korach, and in the end Moses triumphed.
On the other hand, the Talmud is filled with arguments between Hillel and Shammai. They disagreed on numerous points of Jewish law. But the whole purpose of their argument was to settle these very points. Their arguments were for the purpose of heaven, and they had a great respect for one another. To use an old cliché, they were able to disagree without being disagreeable. And in the end, their argument sharpened points of Torah. It was an argument with a good ending.
Married couples will argue. The object is to make it an argument for the sake of heaven. I tell couples to try to see the other’s point of view. Keep the argument on the point at hand, without bringing up past disagreements. Use “I” statements. “I feel this way about this issue.” Avoid “you” statements. “You always act this way.” Perhaps most important, try not to go to bed angry at one another.
There are times when counseling can be really helpful, but only with a marriage counselor who believes in marriage. And that brings me to the final point. In the end a couple must believe in marriage. In that case, the inevitable conflicts might be for the sake of heaven; out of conflict the marriage becomes stronger.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5775)
THE TONGS THAT HELD THE TONGS
“The next day Moses entered the Tent of Meeting and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted; it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.”
(Numbers 17:23)
One of my favorite Rabbinic passages is Avot 5:6 which speaks of ten items God created just before twilight at the end of the sixth day of creation. Phenomena that we consider miracles such as the mouth of the talking donkey and Miriam’s well which traveled with the Israelites through the wilderness were all part of nature. God made them as God was finishing creation before the first Shabbat. This passage fits my view that miracles are not events that go against nature but are actually built into nature.
The passage mentions that one of the creations of God on this sixth day was “the tongs that held the tongs.” What does this mean? We make a pair of tongs by holding molten metal over a fire and shaping them. And we hold this molten metal with a pair of tongs. But this pair of tongs was made by holding molten metal with a previous pair of tongs, which were made by a still previous pair of tongs. You cannot have an infinite regress. Where did the first pair of tongs come from? According to Avot, this was the miracle, something created by God on the eve of the first Shabbat.
I think about this passage whenever I consider where life came from on earth. Biologists teach that life is a totally natural phenomenon. Life works by the use of DNA molecules which create proteins allowing for metabolism. These DNA molecules also divide to create a new generation of life. But where did the DNA molecules which are at the heart of the process come from? Biologists would say that they were created by proteins. But where did the proteins come from? They were created by DNA. You cannot have an infinite regress; something must have kicked off the entire process. This is “the tongs that held the tongs”; something made by God to start life off.
There are a vocal group of people who are defending atheism and attacking religion. Perhaps the most famous is the biologist Richard Dawkins. He teaches that Darwinian evolution is a blind process with no guidance and no God. In fact, he called one of his most famous books The Blind Watchmaker. This is a reaction to naturalist and clergyman William Paley’s (1743 – 1805) famous teleological argument for the existence of God. Paley said that imagine you were walking on the beach and found a watch running. Would that not point to a watchmaker? So we see a universe working like a watch, does this not point to a universe maker? Dawkins argues that Darwin has proven that the design in the universe came from blind forces, without any creator. Thus we have the blind watchmaker. It is interesting to note that Charles Darwin himself was not an atheist.
A young scientist named Jeremy England has recently experimented with how life may have begun. He has developed a theory that given the right conditions, organic molecules might self organize in a way to save energy. Something inanimate may actually turn into something animate. England has been called the new Darwin. What is most intriguing is that England is an Orthodox Jew who does his experiments with a kipa on his head. It is possible to look at how life self-organizes and see it not as a blind process but as the hand of God, the maker of the “tongs that held the tongs.”
The issue of life springing from non-life is central to this week’s Torah portion. Moses takes the wooden staff from each of the twelve tribes and brings them to the Tent of Meeting. God will give a sign which tribe was chosen to become the spiritual leaders. Aaron’s staff, representing the tribe of Levy, sprouted blossoms and brought forth almonds the next day. Out of non-life came life.
We live in a universe where life came forth out of non-life. We can search for a natural reason. But for believers, it is not simply blind forces that brought forth life. For believers, this is the hand of God.
PARSHAT KORACH
(5774)
A TALLIT ALL OF BLUE
“Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men.” (Numbers 16:1)
This week we read about the great rebellion led by Korach and his followers against the leadership of Moses. The first verse describing this rebellion says that “Korach took …” Most translations including the one above claim that “Korach took men.” But the Hebrew text simply claims that “Korach took.” What did he take? The Midrash, Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, gives a wonderful answer.
To understand the Midrash, we need to look at the last passage in the previous portion. It gives the law of the fringes. Jews should put on a four cornered garment and affix fringes on those corners, to remind us of God’s comments. Jewish men, and many Jewish women, keep this commandment by draping themselves in a tallit, or four cornered prayer shawl, when they say their morning prayers. The law also says that the fringes must contain a thread of blue. Today most tallitot (the plural of tallit) do not contain that thread of blue, because we have lost the method of making it. Some Jews claim that we have rediscovered the method, and they put on a thread of blue. But in Moses time, every tallit had a thread of blue.
This brings us to what Korach took. He took a tallit made entirely of blue threads, in Hebrew tallit sh’kula techelet. However, he did not put fringes with a thread of blue on the corners. Wearing this garment, Korach confronted Moses. “Tell me Moses, if I wear a garment made entirely of blue threads, do I still need a thread of blue on the corners.” “Of course” said Moses. Korach mocked Moses, “How ridiculous are your laws! One thread of blue in the corner makes it kosher, but if it is filled with threads of blue, it is not kosher.”
The Korach continued his confrontation with Moses. “Does a room filled with scrolls of the Torah require a mezuzah on the door?” A mezuzah is a small case with parchments containing two sections from the Torah that Jewish tradition requires be put on all doors. “Of course” said Moses. Korach again mocked Moses, “How ridiculous are your laws! One little case containing a few verses on a door is kosher, but a room filled with scrolls of the law are not kosher.” And so the confrontation continued.
Why did the Rabbis of the Midrash bring this imaginary conversation? Korach was not having a serious debate about Jewish law. He was simply picking an argument to put Moses in his place. He was jealous of Moses’ position as leader and lawgiver for the people. He was a member of the tribe of Levi, Moses’ tribe, and therefore felt that the leadership role should go to him. He could care less whether a tallit of blue threads requires fringes, or whether a room filled with Torah scrolls requires a mezuzah. He only cared about starting an argument for the sake of argument.
So let us look at arguments, whether at a synagogue board meeting, an office get-together, or at the family dinner table. Pirkei Avot said there are two types of arguments. (see Avot 5:17) The first are arguments for the sake of heaven. These arguments are meant to endure for they serve a greater purpose. Avot mentions the early Talmudic arguments between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. This probably could be expanded to all the arguments that fill nearly every page of the Talmud. Rabbis loved to argue, but their argument served an ultimate purpose, to ascertain God’s will. They are literally arguments for the sake of heaven.
The passage continues, mentioning arguments not for the sake of heaven. These will not endure. Their particular argument not for the sake of heaven is the confrontation between Moses and Korach. It is not really an argument, it is a power play. Perhaps there is a warning here. We all become entangled in arguments. But are they arguments for the sake of heaven? Or are they power plays? If we find ourselves in the middle of an argument with someone who is simply trying to exert their power, wisdom seems to say “walk away.”
Remember the ending of Korach’s arguments “not for the sake of heaven.” Korach was swallowed up by the earth. There is a tradition that there exists a crack in the earth somewhere in the Sinai Desert, and if you put your ear to the ground you can hear the words, “Moses was right and I was wrong.”

PARSHAT KORACH
(5773)
ARGUMENTS FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN
“They [Korach and his followers] combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, you have gone too far. For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
Have you ever had an argument with someone else? Do you ever disagree? If you are active in a synagogue or church (there are many Christians who receive this message), the answer is probably yes. If you are involved in a condo association, political party, or organization, the answer is probably yes. If you work with other people, the answer is probably yes. And if you ever see members of your own family, the answer is certainly yes. Arguments and disagreements are a fact of life.
The question is – why is there a disagreement? The Talmud speaks of disagreements leshem shamyim – “for the sake of heaven.” Such arguments serve an ultimate purpose. If anyone has ever studied Talmud, the entire multi-volume set of books is nothing but arguments from beginning to end. This rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, and then some third rabbi comes along and disagrees with both of them. In the end, perhaps a final opinion is recorded. But more often than not, the argument simply stands. Jewish tradition teaches that when Elijah comes in the end of days to announce the Messiah, he will settle all the unsettled arguments. But knowing people, I am sure that some of us will start arguing with Elijah.
The Talmud records multiple arguments between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. They disagreed on almost everything. Yet the two schools continued to marry one another (Yebamot 1:4). In fact, the Talmud records regarding the two schools, “These and these are both the words of the living God.” (Eruvin 13b) The Talmud seems to recognize that we live in a world of multiple truths.
My favorite example of an argument for the purpose of heaven was a disagreement between Rabban Gamliel, head of the academy, and Rabbi Joshua, regarding the proper day of Yom Kippur. The Jewish community could not endure if different people kept Yom Kippur on different days. Rabban Gamliel ordered Rabbi Joshua to come to him on the day that Rabbi Joshua thought was Yom Kippur carrying a his staff and money purse (forbidden on Yom Kippur.) After consulting with colleagues, Rabbi Joshua finally acquiesced. He appeared before Rabban Gamliel although he thought it was Yom Kippur. Rabban Gamliel kissed him and said, “Come in peace my master and my disciple – my master in wisdom, and my disciple because you have accepted my words.” (Rosh Hashana 2:9) This was a legitimate disagreement between two people who respected each other, done for the sake of heaven.
There is another kind of disagreement or argument. In this week’s portion Korach challenges Moses’ leadership. Tradition says that Korach appeared before Moses wearing a four cornered garment made entirely of blue. Moses had taught the law of the fringes – a four cornered garment needs four fringes (tzitzit) on the corners, each with a thread of blue. Korach said, “If the garment is entirely blue, does it still need a thread of blue?” When Moses said yes, Korach told him how ridiculous his laws are. In truth, Korach had no interest in the question of a thread of blue on a blue garment. His only interest was undermining Moses’ authority.
The argument between Korach and Moses is an argument not for the sake of heaven. It is an argument where one party is trying to undermine or destroy the other party. This kind of argument occurs too often in our daily lives. We learn in the Ethics of our Fathers, “Every disagreement that is for the purpose of heaven will have a positive lasting result. But every disagreement that is not for the purpose of heaven will not have a good result. What is an argument of the sake of heaven? The arguments between Shammai and Hillel. What is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The arguments of Korach and his followers.” (Avot 5:17)
We all have arguments. Next time you find yourself in the middle of a dispute, ask the question. Is this argument for the sake of heaven? Or is there some other purpose underlying the argument, some ulterior motive. Is it a legitimate argument or a power play? Is someone seeking truth or just asserting their authority? And perhaps if it is not an argument for the sake of heaven, it is worth walking away.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5771)

FACING ANGER
“And he spoke to Korah and to all his company, saying, Tomorrow the Lord will show who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near to him; him whom he has chosen will he cause to come near to him.” (Numbers 16:5)
How do you face other people’s anger? I recall an experience when I was a young Rosh Eida (unit head) at Camp Ramah. A parent called me ranting and raving, demanding to speak to the Camp Director immediately. I became frightened and ran to find the director. “You need to call him immediately,” I emphasized. The director calmly said, “I will get back to him later today.” I said, “But he is so angry.” “That is exactly the reason not to call him right back.”
The camp director was actually following a piece of wisdom found in the Talmud. “Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.” (Avot 4:18). When someone’s anger is raging, it is best to give them time to cool down. It is impossible to speak to someone at such a time.
The idea of giving people time to cool down appears in this week’s portion. Korach, Dathan, and Abiram lead a rebellion against Moses. Moses must confront the angry rebels. But he tells them, tomorrow God will show who is correct. Moses gives them until the next day before confronting them. Perhaps they will change their minds. In fact, one of the rebels On the son of Peleth, backed out of the rebellion. The Midrash teaches that his wife convinced him not to become involved.
Unfortunately, with the exception of On, Moses’ delaying tactic did not work. The rebels still confronted him the next day. This raises the question, what do you do when you are actually confronted with an angry person and cannot wait. Moses listened to their complaints. The wisdom of every relationships expert is to listen. Often if people feel they are being heard, that takes away a good deal of their frustration. “I hear you.” “I understand.” “I have felt this kind of anger.” These phrases go a long way towards pacifying someone. Often people just want to know that someone is listening.
What if you are confronted by anger and you feel the person has a legitimate complaint. An apology goes a long way. Few things take the wind of the sails of an angry confrontation like the words, “You are right. I am sorry. How can I correct the wrong?” To say I am sorry often means humbling oneself before an assailant. This was Moses’ greatest strength according to the Torah. In spite of his great leadership skills, there was no man more humble. On the other hand, this was Pharaoh’s greatest weakness when confronted by Moses. Even when Pharaoh knew he was wrong, he hardened his heart. He could not bring himself to admit that he was sorry.
However, what if you are confronted by undeserved anger? What if you did nothing wrong; you have nothing to be sorry for? What if the person confronting you is unjustified? In the end Moses had to stand his ground against Korach and his cronies, he was right and they were wrong. In the end Moses had to stand his ground and not let Korach get away with it.
As a rabbi, I have been confronted by vicious anger from people I barely know. Sometimes they are angry at my synagogue. Sometimes they are angry at some other rabbi they knew thirty years ago. Sometimes they are angry at God. But I symbolize the synagogue, I symbolize all rabbis, I am a stand in for God. When confronted by that kind of unreasonable anger, there is not a lot I can do. I can listen, but at some point I need to walk away. Their unreasonable anger is their problem, it is not my problem.
A wise person once said that to hold on to anger is like holding onto a hot coal hoping you will burn the other person. In the end anger only hurts the person who is angry. Korach learned this the hard way. Perhaps those of us who deal with other people can help them learn to drop that hot coal, to finally let go of their anger.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5770)

DOUBT
“As for the censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them into hammered plates for a covering of the altar; for they offered them before the Lord, therefore they are consecrated; and they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.” (Numbers 17:3)

Let me share another classic Hassidic story. The rebbe was lecturing his students. “Everything God made in this world God made for a purpose.” The students were surprised. “Everything,” one of them asked. “What about atheism? For what possible purpose did God make atheism?” The rebbe replied, “That is simple. You should always be ready to say that there is no God. For example, when your fellow comes to you and says he or she is in trouble, never say `don’t worry. God will help you.’ Perhaps there is no God. Therefore you should be prepared to help.”
I thought of that story as I thought of a commentary I read on this week’s portion. The portion is centered on a major confrontation between Moses and a number of rebels, led by Korach. Several of the rebels bring firepans (censors) with a false offering to the Lord. At the end of the confrontation Moses’ leadership is reaffirmed. The ground opens up and swallows the rebels.
Then something strange happens. God tells Moses to take the firepans used for the false offering and make them into a covering for the altar. Something that was used for an unholy purpose was now to be used for the holiest purpose. The ritual object used in the rebellion would now be consecrated to the ongoing service of God. Why would God possibly want to use these firepans?
The great mystic and chief rabbi of Palestine (before Israel became a state) Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook came up with an answer. Heretics and rebels can also be holy. They play a key role in the development of any religious faith. To be a true believer, one needs to interact with those who do not believe. Those of us who believe in God and Torah find our faith strengthened by our interactions with those who deny God and Torah. Kook went out of his way to develop a relationship with the secular pioneers in the land. Often deeply religious Jews criticized Kook for his outreach efforts. He would respond that although they do not believe, they are doing God’s work.
Atheism, skepticism, and doubt have roles to play in any religion. The Talmud tells a number of stories about Elisha ben Abulya, the former rabbi who became a heretic. One Shabbat he was riding a horse and Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest Talmudic teachers, was walking besides him. (It is forbidden by Jewish law to ride on a horse on Shabbat.) They came to end of the Sabbath boundary, and Elisha told Rabbi Meir, “You have to stop here. You cannot go any further.” Then Elisha kept riding. Rabbi Meir’s students challenged him, “How can you talk to such a man?” Rabbi Meir replied, “It is like a pomegranate. I keep the seeds and throw away the rind.” Even a heretic has something to teach us.
I believe doubt and skepticism have a role in religion. Have you ever met someone so sure of their faith that they never have a moment of doubt? Often such people are impossible to live with. Perhaps a little bit of doubt is like the leavening that stirs up the dough. It keeps religious people honest. It gives them room to question what they believe. And perhaps the very act of questioning can help strengthen their faith.
I suppose God could have created a world where everything was so upfront and obvious that no one could ever doubt. But I believe a world without doubt would be a much less exciting place.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5769)

LIFE AND DEATH

“The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted; it had brought for the sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.” (Numbers 17:23)

Shortly I will be flying out to my hometown of Los Angeles to visit my family. In particular I look forward to seeing my aunt and uncle. My uncle is 96 and age does take its toll; he recently had to give up his golf game. But I have a vivid memory of him from his younger days. We would all come together for the family Seder, and he was relatively quiet through most the festivities. But then came his favorite moment, the singing ofChad Gadya at the end.
He loved that little goat that father bought for two zuzim. And he sang it with all his might. Remember the song, which ends the Passover Seder – “Then came the Holy One, Blessed be He, and slew the angel of death, who slew the slaughterer who slaughtered the ox, who drank the water that quenched the fire, that burnt the stick that beat the dog, the bit the cat that ate the goat, my father bought for two zuzim. Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya.”
As a child I never took the song too seriously. But now, as an adult studying theology and modern science, I am thinking about that song. The song is ultimately about God overcoming death. A God of life overtakes the angel of death. The same theme is frequent in the Bible; we read it in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones that come to life.
We also read about this vision of life overtaking death in this week’s portion. God wants to prove which tribe will take on religious leadership. The twelve tribes each bring forward a walking staff (dead wood). Moses deposited them in the Tent of Meeting. Overnight, the staff of Aaron sprouted blossoms and almonds. Again life overtook death.
I look at this through the lens of modern cosmology. There are two forces at work in the universe. One is the force of death; the other is the force of life. In nature, everything dies. We have a name for it – entropy. I have often described it using an image I learned from Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Leave a brand new car in the middle of the forest for two hundred years, and you will come back to a pile of rusted metal and rubber. Leave a pile of rusted metal and rubber in the forest for two hundred years; you will never come back to a new care. As the poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
However there is a second force at work in the universe; a force that overcomes entropy. Call it life, call it emergence, call it evolution, I prefer to call it the hand of God. Out of randomness comes order and organization. Atoms form more complex atoms, which form molecules, which form organic molecules, which form proteins and DNA, which form organisms, which form higher forms of life, which eventually forms humanity. Out of death springs life. For a religious Jew, this emergence of life is the presence of God working in the world.
When I was very young, I lived in West Los Angeles. My aunt and uncle lived in the San Fernando Valley. We had to drive over the Sepulveda pass to the valley to visit them. And often there were terrible fires that closed off the pass, sometimes for weeks. When it reopened, I was devastated by the destruction these fires caused; the landscape was bare. Death ruled the land. But within a few weeks life started to sprout up again. Plants began to grow, animals and birds returned. Within a short time there were trees once again. Like Aaron’s walking staff, the force of life had overpowered the force of death.
There are two forces in the world. There is the force of death, when everything falls apart. And there is the force of life, when the hand of God brings things together again. Chad Gadya is not just a cute children’s song at the end of the Seder; it is an ode to the triumph of life over death.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5768)

CONFLICT RESOLUTION
“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, you have gone too far. For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
I have a very simple solution to avoid conflict. Move someplace where you do not know anybody. Live totally alone. Work for yourself, preferably far away from other people. Minimize all human contact. You will probably have no conflict in your life. You will also be exceedingly lonely and probably have little joy in your life.
We humans are by nature social creatures. We need people. And invariably, when people come into contact with other people, there will be conflict. The more the contact, the greater the conflict. The greatest conflict is often with those closest to us, those whom we share a life, our friends and co-workers, our neighbors and roommates, our spouse or partner, our parents and children. Conflict is an inevitable result of a life with people.
This week’s portion is built around a major conflict, the biggest Moses would face in his leadership of the people. The difficulty is that the ring leader of the conflict was a man named Korach, Moses’ own cousin who vied with him for leadership of the people. The great rebellion led by Korach was a family feud, so common in all of our families. The image of family members fighting each other reaches all the way back to Cain and Abel, to the beginning of the human race. Sometimes the worst conflicts are not between nations but between two people who share a common bloodline or live in the same home.
The Talmud gives some wonderful insight into the conflict between Korach and Moses. Pirkei Avot teaches, “Every controversy that is for God’s sake shall end in a positive result, but every controversy not for God’s sake in the end will not have a positive result. Which controversy was for God’s sake? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And what controversy was not for God’s sake? The controversy of Korach and his followers.” (Avot 5:17)
The early Rabbis Hillel and Shammai had vicious arguments over the details of God’s law, but there was a mutual respect between the two of them. The argument was for the sake of heaven. They recognized the legitimacy of the other’s argument. “For three years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. … Then a heavenly voice proclaimed, `These and these are the words of the living God, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.’” (Eruvim 13b) These were legitimate arguments over points of God’s law. There were no ad hominem attacks, it was a conflict about ideas rather than people.
Not so the arguments between Moses and Korach. True that Korach attacked Moses over points of Jewish law. The classical example shows Korach wearing a four cornered garment made of blue threads. He challenged Moses, “Does this need a thread of blue on the fringes in the corners?” “Of course,” replies Moses. And Korach laughed, “Your laws are ridiculous. One thread of blue makes it kosher. But if the whole garment is made of blue threads it is not kosher.” On the surface it seems like a straight forward argument about Jewish law. But the true argument was far more sinister – a power struggle. Moses had the power of leadership and Korach wanted that power.
How often are our conflicts power struggles in disguise? We fight with our children over curfews, with our spouse over money, with our co-workers over which radio station to play in the background. What is the point of the argument? Is it really our attempt to increase our power in relationship to these other people, to show them who’s boss? It takes a lot of brute honesty and serious soul searching to ask the question, “what are we really fighting about?” If it is about a point of law like Hillel and Shammai, there is room for compromise. (Listen to one radio station one day, a different one the next day.) But if the fight is really about power like Moses and Korach, there can be no compromise.
It is important to ask ourselves the brutally honest question – what are we really fighting over? After honest soul searching, we must put the fight behind us. My wife and I have added a wonderful ritual to our marriage. Each Yom Kippur as we light candles, we ask for forgiveness for any wrongs from the past year. At that moment all past conflicts are put behind us. We may not bring them up again. Once a year we wipe the slate clean of all conflicts. Perhaps that is one of the ways we have stayed happily married for almost twenty-nine years.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5767)

LIVING IN A MATERIAL WORLD

“Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 17:31-32)

As a native of Los Angeles, I am always sensitive to earthquakes, just as we Floridians are sensitive to hurricanes. So I always feel a certain tenseness when the ground opens up under Korach, swallowing up him, his family, and his fellow rebels. According to the Torah this was a just punishment for his rebellion against Moses. In fact, according to the Midrash there is a certain crack in the ground in the desert where, if you listen carefully, you can hear a voice lamenting, “Moses was right and I was wrong.”
The Torah often uses natural disasters to bring about punishments. A flood wipes out most of humanity in the days of Noah, terrible plagues strike Egypt, vicious poisonous snakes afflict the Israelites, and Miriam breaks out in leprosy for gossip against Moses’ wife. An underlying theological idea of much of the Torah is that when natural disaster strikes, it must be punishment for some moral lapse. This is precisely the argument Job’s friends use against Job to try to justify his terrible personal suffering. And Job utterly rejects this idea. According to Job, natural disasters afflict the innocent as well as the guilty.
This brings me to the number one question that any religious Jew, or a theist of any faith, must confront today. Why do the innocent suffer? Often people ask me, how can God justify the holocaust? I cannot blame God for the holocaust; it was human beings causing the suffering of other human beings. But a far more difficult theological problem is natural suffering – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, disease, pestilence, birth defects, the list goes on and on. Why do we live in a world where nature itself creates human suffering?
Let me try to grope for an answer. We live in a world of natural laws. These laws are fine tuned so that life and eventually intelligent creative life will evolve. But these same laws that allowed life to evolve often create pain and suffering. For example, evolution requires competition and survival of the fittest, with the death of species and individuals unfit for survival. Within any species there is competition for food, for mates, and for status within the community. Evolution moves forward by genetic mutations, the vast majority of which are destructive. This is the way nature works. There is one other law that is inevitable in a natural world, all things must die. The laws of entropy are inexorable; to quote William Butler Yeats in his most famous poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
To live in a material world is to live in a world of suffering. How are we to cope? There are three possible answers – escape the world, accept the world, or transform the world. The ancient Gnostics believed that this material world was corrupted by evil. The purpose of life was to escape into some more perfect spiritual realm and leave the material behind. This Gnostic view is extremely influential today among many mystics including those who have embraced Kabbalah. How do we deal with the suffering of living in a material world? The mystical answer is escape.
Atheists and materialists of various stripes would claim that this world is all there is. We must live with it. The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre claimed that we live in an absurd world, a cold, unfeeling cosmos. Our goal in life is to act in whatever way we can to give meaning to our lives during the short time we are on this earth. The only meaning life has is the meaning we give it through the choices we make. We must accept the world for what it is, a cruel place, and learn to act accordingly.
The third answer, which I believe is the Biblical answer, is that there is more to us humans than the material. There is a spiritual dimension to our existence which earthquakes cannot touch. But rather than escape from this world, we were sent here to transform this world. We can cure cancer, predict hurricanes, and even build earthquake proof buildings. We can use the power of genetic engineering to overcome birth defects. We can use our powers to transform this material world. When God created the universe, He looked at it and saw that it was “very good” – very good but not perfect. Our job is to perfect it.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5766)

ARGUMENTS

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, You have gone too far. For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

Jews love to argue. It is more than a stereotype; it is a fundamental part of our national character. There is a good reason why we Jews poke fun at our own argumentative ways. (One of the oldest jokes for the non-Jewish readers of this column – Two Jews are in a vicious argument, so they go to their rabbi. The first gives his side of the argument and the rabbi says, “You’re right!” The second gives his side and the rabbi says, “You’re right!” A bystander speaks out. “How can they both be right?” The rabbi replies, “You’re right too.”)
Perhaps our love of argument goes all the way back to our father Abraham, who argued with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps it goes back to the book of Job, where Job calls God to a trial. Certainly the Talmud is filled with page after page of argument between rabbis.
Let me quote one passage from the Talmud as a wonderful example of the joy of arguments. “Resh Lakish died, and (his brother-in-law) R. Johanan was plunged into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? (R.Eleazar b. Pedath went and quoted teachings in support of R. Johanan.) ‘Are you Resh Lakish?’ he complained: ‘when I stated a law, Resh Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law (while you always agree with me.) R. Johanan rent his garments and wept, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakish, where are you, O son of Lakish’” (Baba Metzia 84a). He wept not simply because he lost his brother-in-law, but because he lost his partner in arguments.
Arguments were not simply part of Biblical nor Talmudic times. There is a reason why we Jews say, “Two Jews, three opinions.” We love to disagree. And we admit that the give and take of a good argument sharpens our minds. We did not receive the Torah as a complete package; the Torah has been settled and strengthened through the give and take of powerful arguments.
Nonetheless, not every argument is in the name of heaven. This week’s portion tells of the great rebellion by Moses’ cousin Korach against Moses and his Torah. Korach sought an excuse to argue with Moses about his teachings. Rashi brings one wonderful example of such an argument. Moses had taught that the Israelites should wear fringes on their garments with threads of blue. Korach came forward with a cloak made entirely of blue threads. “Does this need a thread of blue?” “Of course,” Moses replied. Korach then mocked Moses, “Your laws are ridiculous. One thread of blue makes it proper, but all threads of blue are not good.” Korach started mocking Moses and began his revolt against Moses’ authority.
The argument between Moses and Korach was not pure argument for the sake of a better understanding God’s word. It was a power play. The Talmud gives this as an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven. (Avot 5:17) Such arguments have no lasting significance. The Talmud compares the argument between Moses and Korach to the disagreements between the school of Hillel and the school of Shamai. The two schools argued, but with a deep respect for one another. It was an argument for the sake of heaven. Korach’s challenge to Moses was not for the sake of heaven.
We all have arguments with the people in our lives. The closer we are with others, the more frequently we may argue. Every married couple, every parent and child, every brother and sister, knows the heat of argument. Business partners, co-workers, neighbors, and friends all argue. And certainly rabbis argue with congregants.
In the heat of the argument it is vital to stop and ask a question. What are my underlying motives? Am I arguing because I truly disagree on some point? Or is the argument like that of Korach against Moses, filled with underlying agendas and motivations? We each need to ask, “Is this an argument for the sake of heaven?” If not, perhaps we ought to stop arguing.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5764)

AFTER THE DISASTER

“The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted; it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.”
(Numbers 17:23)

Recently I saw Hollywood’s latest disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow. The science, about a contemporary ice age caused by global warning, may be questionable. But the disaster scenes were exciting. It was chilling watching my home city of Los Angeles destroyed by tornadoes, and watching walls of water swallow Fifth Avenue in New York City. I can deal with disasters in movies. But how do we cope with disaster in real life?
Los Angeles does not need tornadoes. It has more than its share of earthquakes, brush fires that destroy entire neighborhoods, and mud slides washing expensive homes into the sea. This year the Midwest has been hit by a record number of tornadoes, many of them unusually destructive and deadly. And of course, here in south Florida the memory of Hurricane Andrew still haunts us.
Sometimes I wonder where one can live in the United States to avoid all natural disasters; which state is farthest from the hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and brush fires that seem to hit regularly. Even if we were to live in such a state, other disasters might hit. To be alive is to be subject what insurance companies call “acts of God,” random disasters that hit because we live in the world. There is no place of safety anywhere. The goal is to learn to deal with disasters when they hit.
If producers were to make a disaster movie from the five books of Moses, they would probably pick this week’s portions. The portion begins with all the human conflicts of every disaster movie, a rebellion against Moses led by Korach and his cohorts. However, fairly quickly Korach became the victim of a major earthquake. The ground opened up, and he and his family were swallowed under the ground. According to Rabbinic tradition, he went down alive and his voice can still be heard crying out, “Moses was right and I was wrong.” What a dramatic movie scene this would be.
The disasters were not yet over. A fire consumed two hundred and fifty men who brought a false offering following Korach. Finally, a terrible plague broke out amongst the Israelites. Although the plague began amongst the rebels, it quickly spread to the Israelites who were not involved in the great revolt. The innocent too often become the victims. Aaron, the brother of Moses, became the hero of the story. “Aaron took (the fire pan), as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people. He stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” (Numbers 17:12-13) One can picture a dramatic scene, with Aaron standing before the spreading plague praying that it stops.
The disasters were finally over. But how would the people find healing? Again, Aaron becomes the symbol. In a dramatic test, Aaron=s staff broke out with an almond blossom. Where there had been death, new life began to bloom. One would not expect a flower to suddenly bloom on a wooden staff. But the image of the almond blossom is symbolic of the new life that pushes forth out of the death, new hope that always blooms after a disaster.
I have many memories from my childhood of visiting areas devastated by the terrible brush fires of Southern California. Everything was burnt; there seemed little hope that life would ever reappear. However, within a very short time wild flowers covered the ground. Within a year there was a new growth of trees. In a few years you would not know that the fire had ever hit. There is a life force at work in the universe that seems to overpower death.
I remember driving through south Miami-Dade county shortly after hurricane Andrew. I became totally lost; the hurricane had blown down all the road signs. Downed trees and damaged homes were everywhere. Nevertheless, within a very short time, new life sprang up throughout the area. Trees were planted, homes were repaired, people found healing, and life bloomed once again. Within a couple of years you would not know that the most damaging hurricane in United States history had devastated the area. The force of life had overpowered the force of death.
Aaron’s blossoming staff is a powerful symbol to anyone facing disaster. At first the scent of death is overwhelming. But like a flower, a life force seems to fight its way to the surface. In the movies there is always a ray of hope in the end. And so it is in real life. When everything seems hopeless, search for the new bloom. The force of life will always overpower the force of death. That is the promise of scripture; that is the reality of life.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5763)

WHEN THE EARTHQUAKE HIT

“The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.”
(Numbers 16:32)

I have always been sensitive when this portion is read. The central event is when the ground opened up and swallowed Korach and his followers, and all those who rebelled against Moses. I grew up in Los Angeles where earthquakes are a fact of life, and the ground sometimes actually opens up.
Today I live in Florida where we fear hurricanes. But at least with a hurricane we have a warning. I was here when the last big earthquake hit Los Angeles; my parents were unscathed when a giant dresser fell over right next to them. God spared them, but others were less fortunate. A number of people died on that day.
How do we deal with tragedies that hit – earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, all the natural disasters. I shared the following thoughts two years ago on the high holidays. When God began to create the world, God fine tuned the laws of nature so that human beings would emerge. The Torah starts with the words, “When God began to create the heaven and the earth and the earth was tohu v’vohu, void and without form.” In the beginning there was chaos. Out of that chaos God created order. God made the laws just so that life would emerge, consciousness would emerge, humans would emerge.
We human beings live in a world of natural laws. So why is there evil in the world, earthquakes and hurricanes, birth defects and cancer cells? Why does the world not work in a way that rewards the good and punishes the wicked? Long ago a wise rabbi asked that same question. He asked, if a farmer steals wheat from another farmer and plants it, should it not grow? Shouldn=t the farmer be punished for stealing the wheat. The rabbi answered, “olam keminhago nahag, the world behaves according to its nature. The laws of nature happen, irrespective of our moral qualms.”
So the world acts according to its own laws. Nature takes its course. Earthquakes and tornadoes, genetic mutations and cancer cells do not make moral judgments about their victims. They happen, because we live in a world of natural laws. That is the way of the world of natural laws.
If God had made the laws a little bit different, there would be no life. If gravity was a little weaker, matter would have diffused through the universe and there would be nothing except random hydrogen molecules. If gravity were a little stronger the sun would have burnt itself out long before life could evolve. In this world of matter, everything is made just right so that humans would emerge. Therefore, to quote the Talmud, a person should always say, behshili bara haolam. “The world was created for me.”
So why is there suffering in this world? The world goes according to nature’s laws. Human beings are made of carbon because that is the best chemical to build life. However, the same forces that released carbon from rocks in the earth’s crust causes earthquakes and volcanoes. The same forces that allowed genetic mutations so that life could evolve also causes birth defects and cancer cells. The same gravitational force that allowed the stars to be formed causes disaster when an airplane falls from the sky. To live in this world is to live in world of natural laws. And according to those laws, bad things do sometimes happen.
So here we have the beginning of an answer to the question, where was God? According to kabbala, God contracted Him/Herself so that a world could emerge. God fine tuned the laws to allow human beings to emerge. God has a role, a mission for us human beings. We are to be God’s partners in creation. We are to join God in perfecting this world. Perhaps someday we will predict earthquakes or even prevent them. Meanwhile, we can make our buildings as earthquake proof as possible. Then we will be doing God’s work.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5762)

BEYOND REPROACH

“Moses was much aggrieved and he said to the Lord, Pay no regard to their oblation, I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.”
(Numbers 16:15)

There is a classic Jewish tale of a builder of homes in a small town. He built wonderful homes for the wealthiest townspeople, but he and his family lived in a poor hovel. (It is like the shoemakers kids who have no shoes.) A wealthy man in town took pity on the builder and made him in offer. “I want you to built me a magnificent home. Use the best materials. I will be traveling over the next nine months. Submit your bills to my agent and he will make sure that you are paid.”
The builder began to work on the house. He laid the foundations, and collected money for the best materials. “I can use cheaper material and pocket the difference. The owner is traveling, he will never know.” Then he began to build the frame of the home. “Who will know the difference if I use cheaper materials.” So it was with everything the builder built. On the surface the house looked magnificent. But underneath the builder knew the truth; he had cut every corner.
At last the wealthy man returned to the community. The builder handed him keys to the new home. And the wealthy man replied, “You do such wonderful work. Take the keys. I had this home built for you.”
The moral of the story is clear. We can cut corners and cheat in our business dealings. Sometimes we can even get away with it. Who will know? But deep in our hearts we know the truth. We have to live in the home that we built, or to switch metaphors, we have to sleep in the bed we made. Ultimately, God also knows. That is why, in most synagogues in the world, the words appear before the ark “Know Before Whom You Stand.” Even if we think nobody is looking, we are constantly in the presence of God.
In this week’s portion, Korach and his fellow conspirators lead a vicious rebellion against Moses. Moses called for them to come forward and they refused. “Why should you rule of us?” Moses cried out to God in anger, “I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” Moses as a leader of the people, had to be beyond reproach in his business dealings.
The same theme is repeated in the haftarah. The people had challenged the prophet Samuel’s leadership. He cried out, “Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you.” (1 Samuel 12:3) Once again, a leader pleads that he has been honest in all his business dealings. And as a leader of the people, he must be beyond reproach.
One of the most fundamental laws of the Torah is honesty in business dealings. One must have honest weights and measures, tell the truth, pay employees on time, be fair, and avoid putting a stumbling block before the blind. The Rabbis interpret this final law as anything that would falsely lead someone on. For example, it is forbidden for a stock broker to dishonestly trade stocks in someone=s portfolio without proper permission, and even with permission if that person is not sophisticated enough to give proper consent. In the same way, it is forbidden for a builder to use inferior materials, even if the buyer will never know the difference.
These laws are true for all human beings. But they are particularly true for those in positions of leadership. There is nothing that brings me more pain as a rabbi than to read of another rabbi accused of improper financial dealings. When I read of a rabbi who had misappropriated donations to his discretionary fund, I realized it put a bad name not only on all rabbis, but on all Judaism and the God we serve.
The Talmud teaches that when we are called to the next world, we will be asked a series of questions about how we lived our lives. One of the most fundamental questions is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” May all of us, leaders like Moses and Samuel, and ordinary people, always be beyond reproach.

PARSHAT KORACH
(5761)

LISTEN TO YOUR WIFE

“Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab and On son of Peleth descendants of Reuben, to rise up against Moses.”
(Numbers 16:1-2)

In this week=s portion, a group of men led by Korach rebelled against Moses and his leadership. One of the men is On the son of Peleth. He is mentioned at the beginning, and never mentioned again. What became of him?
The Talmud provides an answer with deep insights for today. (Sanhedrin 109b) On’s wife (who is never named) confronts him about his involvement in the revolt. “What do you want with Korach? Whether Moses wins or Korach wins, in the end they will still be the boss and you will be the disciple.” Whoever wins, On would stay second class.
On responded to his wife, “What can I do? I already committed myself to the revolt.” His wife answered, “Let me take care of it.” On’s wife gave him wine to drink until he was lying in the tent inebriated. His wife then let her hair down and sat at the door of the tent (a sexually suggestive story.) When Korach came by to bring On for the revolt, he saw his wife, realized On was busy, and went on without him. Listening to his wife and backing out of the revolt saved On’s life.
This midrash tells a deep insight about human nature. Sometimes women have insights about people that their husbands do not share. Many husbands would be better off if they followed the advice God once gave to Abraham regarding his wife Sarah, “Listen to her voice.” (Genesis 21:12)
I suppose I could give this message in a non-gendered way and tell wives to listen to their husbands. That may sometimes be true. But years of counseling experience, as well as insights into my own marriage have convinced me that often women have insights into human nature that their husbands would be wise to heed.
This has happened more than once in my marriage. Someone would approach me about a business proposition, an investment, involvement in some kind of deal. I would tell my wife all excited. “We’ll make some extra money.” She would meet the person and tell me afterwards, “I just do not trust them. Back off.” I would argue, but deep in my heart I sensed she was right. And usually she was. She has this sense about other people.
Sometimes I feel that God gave women some deep insights about human beings. I am well aware that any discussion of gender differences is treading in dangerous waters. Nonetheless, three thousand years before John Gray taught us that men are from Mars and women from Venus, the Torah was already speaking of the differences between men and women.
Too many men, myself included, are focused on accomplishments, success, what we do. Women seem more attuned to relationships, intimacy, other people. Too many men think about the deal, women think about who are the people involved.
In our portion, On the son of Peleth saw a chance to advance himself through joining Korach’s revolt. On’s wife saw the true character of Korach, and was able to save her husband=s life. Many husbands would be better off if, like Abraham and like On, we listened to our wives. As the Bible teaches, “Every wise woman builds her home.” (Proverbs 14:1)

PARSHAT KORACH
(5760)

SHOULD WE FORGIVE?

“Then [Moses] spoke to Korach and his company saying, come morning, the Lord will make known who is his and who is holy.”
(Numbers 16:5)

This portion contains the great revolt against Moses led by Korach and his followers. Moses gave Korach until the next morning to come forward and confront him. He wanted to give Korach overnight to change his ways and seek forgiveness.
Some of the followers of Korach did reconsider. Korach’s sons dropped out of the revolt; in the end they became the author of some of the greatest Psalms. Korach however was unrepentant until the end. He and his followers were swallowed up into the ground.
Should Korach be forgiven? In Jewish tradition we learn that we must forgive if someone who wronged us comes forward with a sincere apology. If they come forward three times and seek forgiveness and we do not forgive them, the onus is now on us. However, this leaves the question – what if we have been wronged and there is no apology? Must we forgive others, when they have failed to take the first step? Must the forgiver take the initiative?
There are many religious leaders today who teach a theology of forgiveness, even when there has been no apology and no repentance for the wrongdoing. One of the most egregious examples that appeared in the news was after the high school shooting in Peducah, Kentucky a few years ago. Several students gathered in prayer were killed. Almost immediately signs appeared on the campus naming the killers with the words “We Forgive You.” Many of the parents of victims were deeply wounded by this rush to forgiveness, without any confession of wrongdoing or sign of remorse by the perpetrators.
In truth, there is no obligation to forgive when the wrongdoer has not sought an apology. Forgiveness is a reaction to a heartfelt act of remorse by the wrongdoer towards the person wronged. As a rabbi, I am often asked, “Why can’t you Jews forgive the Nazis for the holocaust.” My answer is that it is not my job to forgive, only the actual victims can do the forgiving. And they can only do that in the next world.
The initiative towards reconciliation must rest with the wrongdoer. Having said that, there is still a valuable lesson to learn from our religious tradition. The Torah teaches that “You shall not commit vengeance in you heart.” (Leviticus 19:18) On one hand, one does not need to rush to forgiveness. On the other hand, an ongoing bitterness often damages us rather than the one deserving of our anger. It is like a hot coal we hold in our hand to throw at someone else, but meanwhile we find ourselves being burnt. Or as Dr. Laura Schlesinger once quoted from an anonymous author, “Anger is a poison we take with the hope that it will kill someone else.”
How do we find reconciliation when someone who hurt us has not sought forgiveness? I have counselled many people who grew up abused by their parents. Must they honor an abusive father and mother? I have told them that they do not need to destroy themselves in order to honor parents. However, they do need to begin the process of healing themselves.
One way to begin healing is to ask why the perpetrator committed the wrongdoing. Jewish tradition differentiates between those who commit wrongs because they are truly evil, and those who commit wrongs because they cannot control their appetites. Perhaps when we see wrongdoing as a lack of self-control, there is room for more compassion on the wrongdoer. Some people simply never learn to control their evil inclination. That does not make them right. It does make them human Perhaps recognizing their humanity is the beginning of forgiveness.