Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“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)

Like most of us, I watched the debate last week between President Biden and former President Trump. I do not wish to comment on the performance of the two men; enough has been said. Rather, I want to look at a deeper question, some would say a meta-question about the debate. It is directly tied to the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Was it a debate for the sake of heaven?
This week’s portion begins with a challenge to Moses by his cousin Korach and a group of his followers. They claim Moses is unworthy of leadership. According to the Midrash (Rabbinic interpretation), they argue about trivial points of Jewish law. Korach argues, “A tallis requires four fringes, one thread of blue, in the four corners. But what about a garment made entirely of blue threads with no fringes? Is that kosher?” When Moses replied no, Korach tells Moses his law is ridiculous. Of course, the entire argument is not about a blue tallis but rather it is a power struggle, with Korach attempting to undermine Moses’ authority.
The Rabbis in the Talmud claim that there are two kinds of arguments, those for the sake of heaven and those not for the sake of heaven. To quote the full passage (Avot 5:17): “Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven – it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.”
Hillel and Shammai were two Rabbinic leaders who argued over multiple points of Jewish law, but with the greatest respect for one another. When the argument was over, they married into one another’s families. Korach and his followers argued with Moses with no respect; it was a powerplay by Korach to undermine Moses’ authority. Reading the portion, in the end Moses wins, and the ground opens up to swallow Korach and his followers. (Having grown up in earthquake prone California, I am always super-sensitive about this image of the ground opening up.)
That brings me to not only last week’s debate, but most of the political arguments I have watched over the last few years. It was not an argument over what policies would be best for our country. It was an argument to undermine the legitimacy, authority, and even the humanity of the opponent. Reasonable people can argue about immigration, abortion, foreign policy, or the economy. They can strongly disagree but still respect each other as human beings. But I found this debate to be filled with what philosophers call ad hominem attacks, attacking the person rather than the idea. I turned off the television after the debate with a deep sense that, to quote the Talmud, this argument was not for the sake of heaven.
I think what drove the issue home for me most strongly is that the two candidates refused to shake hands with each other, either at the beginning or end of the debate. If shaking hands were the custom in Biblical times, Moses would not have shaken hands with Korach. If shaking hands were the custom in Talmudic times, Hillel certainly would have shaken hands with Shammai. Two people can respect each other’s dignity, even if they strongly disagree on their policies.
The political season is beginning. There will be more debates, and then there will be an election. I will listen, and then I will vote for the candidate who I believe will be best for this country. I can only pray that the candidates, even if they disagree on issues, will respect the humanity of one another. I pray that future debates will be for the sake of heaven.

“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 teach college philosophy including logic. Logic is the art of analyzing arguments. And fallacies are bad arguments, arguments that do not lead from premises to conclusions. One of the most prevalent fallacies is called ad hominem (Latin for “to the man.”) In the midst of an argument, instead of attacking your opponent’s ideas, you attack your opponent’s character. Suddenly the argument gets personal.
If people want to see an example, just watch the current political debates. “You are in favor of unrestricted immigration. But you are a socialist who wants to change our entire economic system.” “You are in favor of restricting immigration. But you are a reactionary who wants to set our country back fifty years.” If you follow politics at all, you constantly hear these kinds of ad hominem arguments.
I usually do not write about politics. But I do follow politics. There was a time that reasonable people could argue about the major issues – immigration, the economy, the environment, abortion, critical race theory, and dozens of other issues. They could disagree, but they would listen and respect one another’s opinion. There was a time when people on the opposite sides of the political spectrum could be friends. That is how the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia could be close personal friends. She was a passionate liberal and he was a passionate conservative; they disagreed on almost everything. But they respected each other’s humanity.
This has been lost today. The tendency is to demonize those on the other side of the political spectrum. If someone disagrees with me, they are malevolent, out to destroy our country. Both sides are guilty of this name calling. If you see your political opponent as intent on evil, the argument unravels. Now it becomes a personal attack. The issues are forgotten in the name calling.
The Rabbis of the Mishnah, in analyzing this week’s portion, discuss this. They claim there are two kinds of arguments. Avot 5:17 teaches, “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.”
Korach challenged Moses’ authority on numerous points of Jewish law. For example, he took a four cornered garment entirely of blue and wore it, asking whether it needs fringes in the corners with a thread of blue. Moses replied yes. Korach answered, “Moses, your laws are ridiculous. One thread of blue makes it kosher but if all the threads are blue it is not kosher.” Korach was not challenging Moses on an arcane point of Jewish law. He had an ulterior motive. He felt that he should rightly be the leader and he wanted to attack Moses’ authority. It looked like an argument, but it was really a power play.
These are the arguments we see too often in the political arena. The goal is not to solve the serious problems facing our country, but to demonize and destroy one’s opponents. It is a serious fallacy of logic. Reasonable people can disagree on issues, and they can argue passionately for their point of view. In the Talmud, Shammai and Hillel behaved this way. But when the arguments were over, they married into one another’s families. They disagreed but were able to respect one another.
I love a good argument as much as anyone. But a good argument begins with respecting the humanity of my opponent. We can disagree on the issues without being disagreeable to one another.


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

I grew up in Los Angeles, CA and each year when I read this portion, it brings back memories of home.  It is not simply the moment at the beginning of the portion when the ground opens up and swallows Korach and his fellow rebels.  Certainly, earthquakes were an ongoing reality during my formative years, although I was out of town for the worst – the 1971 San Fernando and 1994 Northridge quakes.  But it is a scene from later in the portion that brings some vivid memories of my hometown.

Later in the Torah portion, Moses wants to prove to the rebellious Israelites who God has chosen for religious leadership.  The head of each of the tribes gives Moses a staff, and Aaron of the tribe of Levi also gives his staff.  Moses leaves the staffs overnight in the Tent of Meeting.  The next morning Aaron’s staff sprouts almond blossoms.  Dead wood brings forth life.  It seems to be a miracle when something dead brings forth life again.  That is my memory of California.

Growing up, on a regular basis, there are horrible fires in the Los Angeles area.  They seem to be getting worse today, a result of climate change.  But the fires of my youth were also terrible.  I recall the 1961 Bel-Air fire, where the sky blackened over the city and hundreds of the most expensive homes in the L.A. area were destroyed.  After the fire, everything seemed to be desolate.  It was like looking at a moonscape.  But then a miracle happened.  Plants began to sprout again.  Like Aaron’s staff, the ground brought forth life.  Within a year it was as if the fire never happened.  Life had overtaken death.

That seems to be the way our world works.  The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) used the phrase Élan Vital – literally “vital force” or “life force.”  It was the force that drives the creative evolution of life on earth.   Scientists deny that such a life-force exists, claiming that the world is a purely material place working by the laws of physics.  But I saw firsthand that life force working in the burnt-out mountains near my home.  I am convinced that Bergson was on to something.  A life force seems to be at work in the world.  Left to its own devices, nature has a tendency for life to flourish.  The proof is all around us, in a world brimming with life of all kinds.

Judaism has always identified God with this life force at work in the world.  That is why we repeat multiple times in our High Holiday liturgy, “Remember us to life, King Who loves life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake O God of life.”  God equals life.  In the Torah we are told, “Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).  We should identify with that same life force at work in Aaron’s staff, in the burnt-out hills of Los Angeles, and in the world as a whole.

That brings me to the issue of abortion, and the decision of the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade and send the abortion question back to the states.  Is not Judaism on the pro-life side?  Yes and no!  Judaism is far more nuanced on difficult questions like abortion.   In general it is pro-life.  But what if there is a clash between two lives, that of the mother and that of the fetus?  What if carrying that fetus to term would be a threat to the mother’s life, health, or well-being?   Multiple Jewish sources are clear on this question.  The mother’s life takes priority.  She is a full living being, the fetus is only potential life.  Or as the great commentator Rashi wrote regarding this question, lav nefesh hee – “it is not yet a living being.”

Judaism favors life.  But if the growing fetus is a threat to the mother’s life, health, or well-being, Judaism permits and sometimes requires abortion.  That is why this Supreme Court decision contradicts Jewish law and practice.  That is why, in my humble opinion, the best approach is that described by President Bill Clinton, abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”


“Now Korah, 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.”  (Numbers 16:1)

One of the courses I teach at the local colleges is Critical Thinking and Logic.  Logic is particularly difficult for many of my students.   As a former mathematics major in my college days, I truly enjoy it.  Not so my students.  Logic is the branch of philosophy that deals with arguments; what is a valid or sound argument and what is not.

An argument in logic is not two people raising their voices and fighting with one another.  Rather, an argument consists of a group of premises and a conclusion.  A good argument occurs when the premises are true and they lead to the conclusion.  The problem is that we rarely hear good arguments.  Often people use fallacies or false arguments, and the critical thinking part of the course helps my students recognize such fallacies.  When I think about this topic, I remember the old Simon and Garfunkel song used in the movie The Graduate, “Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon, listening to the candidates debate.  Laugh about it, shout about it, when you got to choose.  Every way you look at it, you lose.”  Political debates are filled with fallacies and bad arguments.

This week’s portion describes a series of bad arguments, the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses.  It begins with the words “Korach took.”   What did he take?  At the end of last week’s reading, we learned the laws of the tallit and the four ritual fringes, which traditionally contained a thread of blue.  According to the Midrash, Korach took a tallit made entirely of blue threads.  He confronted Moses.  “If a tallit is made entirely of blue threads, does it still need a blue thread on the fringes?”  Moses answered yes.  Korach replied, “Your laws are ridiculous.  One blue thread makes it kosher (proper) but if it is all blue threads it is not kosher.”

Then Korach said, “If a room consists entirely of Torah scrolls, does it still need a mezuzah (a parchment with verse from the Torah) on the door?”  Moses answered yes.  Korach replied, “Your laws are ridiculous.  One parchment makes it kosher but a room full of parchments is not kosher.”  With such arguments, Korach began the great rebellion against Moses.

If I had my students study this argument, they would recognize the strawman fallacy.  You exaggerate your opponent’s point of view, building a strawman.  Then you tear down the strawman, thinking you are destroying your opponent’s argument.  Korach was not arguing with Moses for the sake of truth.  It was a power play.  He was jealous of Moses’ power.  And an argument that is about power cannot be sustained, as the Rabbis of the Talmud would teach.

The Rabbis in the Mishnah teach that there are two kinds of arguments (Avot 5:17).  “Every argument for the sake of heaven will endure.  Those not for the sake of heaven will not endure.  What is an argument for the sake of heaven?  Those between Hillel and Shammai (two leading rabbis of the Talmud.)  What is an argument not for the sake of heaven?  The controversy brought by Korach and his followers.”

There is nothing wrong with arguments.  Every page of the Talmud is filled with passionate give and take between rabbis as they try to pin down what Jewish law teaches.  Philosophy since the days of Socrates is built on arguments.  This ancient Greek philosopher used to go out into the marketplace of Athens to challenge people regarding their beliefs, and therefore strengthen their thinking.  Good arguments are a search for truth.

The argument between Korach and Moses was not a search for truth.  Rather they were arguing about power.  Korach was attempting to destroy Moses personally so he could emerge as a person of power.  I am afraid that much of our public discourse today is about power rather than a search for truth.  As the Rabbis teach, such arguments will not endure.


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

In this portion, Korach and his followers lead a rebellion against Moses.  Moses responds that if these people die a natural death, then their revolt is justified.  Suddenly the ground opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.  There is a well-known tradition that somewhere in the Sinai Desert there is a crack in the ground, and if you hold your ear to it, you can hear a voice crying out, “Moses was right and I was wrong.”

Korach dies in an earthquake.  On the High Holidays we chant the powerful untaneh tokef prayer, which includes the words “who by earthquake and who by plague.”  I know we all have a plague on our minds.  But I am sensitive to earthquakes.  After all, I grew up in Los Angeles, sitting on the San Andreas Fault, home of too many earthquakes.  Like Korach, like the High Holiday prayer, does God send us earthquakes to punish us?

When it comes to earthquakes, I have been lucky.  I was visiting Israel when the Sylmar Earthquake struck in 1971 (6.6 on the Richter scale).  I quickly learned what the Hebrew ri-edat adamah means as I tried to reach my parents to see if they were all right.  I was living in Florida when the Northridge Earthquake struck in 1994 (6.7 on the Richter scale).  A huge piece of furniture fell on my parents’ bed, but they were all right.  I was in a hotel in New York when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco in 1989, delaying the World Series (6.9 on the Richter scale.)  I have avoided the big one.

Each of these events was tragic but less than 100 people died in each.  California knows how to build earthquake-proof buildings.  Not so the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (7.0 on the Richter scale) where at least 100,000 people died.  We will never know the exact number.  Haiti is still recovering.  The Haiti Earthquake ought to teach us a lesson that we humans can do better.

The earthquake that revolutionized religious thought occurred in Lisbon on All Saints Day in 1755 (estimated 8,4 on the Richter scale.)  Some 30,000 people died, many of them in church.  It was Voltaire who most passionately wrote that such an earthquake could not be a punishment from God.  (Voltaire was attacking the philosopher Leibniz, who taught that God sends everything for a reason, and “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” I strongly recommend Voltaire’s novel Candide or the Leonard Bernstein Broadway musical based on the novel.)

Earthquakes are not punishments from God.  Neither are tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and dare I say it, corona viruses.  Natural events are simply that – part of nature.  And nature sometimes sends events that lead to horrible human suffering.  Numerous people have told me that the corona virus is sending us a message from God.  We have to change our ways.  God is punishing us for our destruction of the environment; the corona is God’s answer for polluting our air and water, destroying the rain forest, diminishing species, and causing global warning.  Just as God punished Korach, so God is punishing us.

I believe neither earthquakes nor corona viruses are punishments from God.  I strongly believe that nature runs according to its own laws.  God’s world is filled with brokenness, to quote a phrase from Kabbalah.  Our job is tikkun, to work to perfect the world as a kingdom of God.  We help perfect the world when we search for a vaccine to save lives from the virus.  We help perfect the world when we learn to better predict hurricanes and tsunamis.  And we help perfect the world when we help Haiti build new buildings like those in California, that can withstand another earthquake.

Nature is not looking to punish us.  Nature goes about its business.  But nature, even when it seems malevolent, becomes an opportunity to make this a better world.  We cannot stop earthquakes and we cannot stop viruses.  We can work hard to lower human suffering in the wake of such events.

“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.” (Numbers 16:3)
Sometimes even the bad guy gets it right. Korach is the villain of this week’s portion, leading a revolt against Moses. I will not defend him, but I do like his words “all the congregation are holy.” If only he had stopped there and not continued with words of rebellion.
As many of you know, I teach a college course in ethics, not Jewish ethics but regular philosophical ethics. I present my class a variety of ethical systems – ethical subjectivism, cultural relativism, divine command theory, virtue ethics, natural law theory, ethical egoism, utilitarianism, deontology, and feminine care ethics. I am critical of each one of these ethical systems. Each has its shortcomings. I was asked after class by one of my students, “So you’re a rabbi. Why do you believe we should be ethical?” Great question that is not easy to answer. I paused for a moment.
I shared with my student the same answer I share with the entire class at the end of the semester. I begin with an idea that I accept as a given. Every human being is holy. Every human being has an inherent dignity that cannot be taken away. Where does this human dignity come from? As a religious Jew, I believe it comes from the fact that we are created in the image of God. But a secularist like Kant would say that it comes from the fact that human beings are rational. He continues that every human being must be treated as an end and not a means. Every human deserves to be treated with fundamental human dignity. Philosophers would call this a “brute fact,” something we take as a given without trying to prove it. Ethics must be based on human dignity as a given.
This concept of human dignity can be applied in so many areas of human life. Take politics, an area of human life that today lacks human dignity. Politicians can argue about a difficult issue like immigration. There are no simple answers. Do we build a wall and tighten our borders? Do we build sanctuary cities and open our borders? Let the politicians seek a compromise. But to begin with, we must say that all immigrants, legal or illegal, deserve fundamental human dignity. Children should not be separated from parents. Conditions in detention centers must be sanitary and humane. Before we even tackle this difficult issue, we must start with the presumption that every human being is holy.
Take the difficult issue of Israeli – Palestinian relations. In my mind this issue seems almost intractable. But it must start with the assumption that those on the other side, who may even be our sworn enemies, are holy. They deserve a fundamental human dignity. Only from the point of dignity can we even begin to speak about a solution to this difficult political question.
Or take our entire political discourse. For some reason, I am friends with an equal number of conservatives and progressives, of Republicans and Democrats. I read their posts online and see how they demonize one another. It is fine to have political views. But the other side are not demons. Even those who disagree with us are human beings who have their own ideas of what is best for our country. I look forward to the day when our political leaders start treating each other with a fundamental dignity.
Why be ethical? Philosophers have articulated several theories. Perhaps there are so many theories because none of them is truly correct. Perhaps the correct theory is that we should be ethical because our fellow human beings deserve it. According to the Torah, the ground opened beneath Korach and he was swallowed up. There is a very old tradition that we can visit the spot where the ground opened. If we put our ear to the ground, we can hear a voice calling, “Moses was right and I was wrong.” Korach was wrong. But he was right about one thing – everybody is holy and deserves dignity.

“He [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” (Numbers 17:14)
Recently I heard a cute story. A man suddenly collapses and is taken to the hospital. When he awakens, the doctor tells him, “I have bad news. You have Ebola, mad cow disease, and hepatitis B. We are going to put you on a pizza diet.” The patient answers, “How will that help me?” The doctors says, “It won’t. But it is the only thing that we can slip under the door.”
We can joke about those who care for patients with deadly diseases. But it is serious business. My wife used to work as a medical technologist at a local hospital. In fact, her first job was at Jackson Memorial. I remember vividly when the AIDS epidemic first broke out in the early 80’s. Brave doctors, nurses, and medical technologists worked with patients, often not knowing how the deadly disease was spread. I remember the concern regarding accidental finger sticks, even as medical personnel began wearing gloves. People in hospitals knew that they were standing between life and death.
This week’s portion has a moving image. Korach and his companions lead a full-fledged revolt against Moses and his leadership. In a well-known story, the ground opens up below Korach and he is swallowed up. But the conflict is not over. A plague breaks out among the followers of Korach, including those who challenged Aaron’s right to the priesthood. Aaron steps forward with a special offering, and in the midst of the plague, stands between life and death. Suddenly the plague stops.
I love this image of Aaron standing between life and death. It takes courage and dedication. Certainly medical personnel often stand between life and death. But so do many others who face death as they protect lives. Most obvious are military personnel who have put their lives on the line, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even at home. I grew up in an age when young people came back from Vietnam and were jeered by too many people. So often we do not appreciate the sacrifice of our military. Obviously also our police and firefighters risk their lives daily to protect us. I recently offered a prayer at a memorial service for members of the Sheriff’s Department killed in the line of duty. I met the families and listened to the long litany of names. We often do not appreciate what these brave people do.
This raises a question in my mind. Do rabbis ever stand between life and death? Most of us have comfortable jobs that rarely involve physical danger. But there have been exceptions. One thinks of the late Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, who in 1943 was one of the four chaplains on the U.S. Dorchester who gave up his life vest and went down with the ship. The story of the four chaplains has been immortalized by, among other things, a postage stamp. More recently, one thinks of the Detroit Rabbi Morris Adler who in 1966, while conducting services in his congregation, was shot and killed by a disturbed young man he was counseling. And not long ago, in 2008, there was Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka who were murdered by terrorists in the Chabad House in Mumbai, India. Sometimes rabbi literally put their lives on the line.
My life has never been in danger. But there have been many times as a rabbi when I felt like I was standing between the living and the dead. I certainly felt it on February 14 this year when I was called to the hospital after the Stoneman Douglas High School rampage. I sat counseling families as they waited for news whether their children were alive and dead. I certainly felt that more recently when I was called in the middle of the night to counsel and comfort a family who lost their father very suddenly. My job was to help the family deal with death while knowing that we must reaffirm life. It is probably the most difficult job I have to do as a rabbi.
We need to thank everyone who stands, as Aaron did, between life and death. We need to thank those who work in hospitals, those who serve in the military, those who keep our streets safe, and those who fight fires. As a rabbi, I understand what it is like to stand in that place between life and death.

“The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16:32)
Three times over the past two weeks I had to do something rather difficult. I went to visit people in the last days of their lives. Jews do not have the equivalent of last rites, like they do in many Christian traditions. But we do have something called the final vidui or confessional. My rabbi’s manual has two versions. The first, more traditional one is for a person to say themselves on their deathbed. Since many people are drugged or barely conscious in their last days, the second version is for a rabbi to say in their stead. Three times I said this prayer.
The basic idea is that life and death are in the hands of God. If possible, let there be healing. But if that is not possible, let the person’s death be a kapara, an atonement, for any sins they may have committed in life. Atonement literally means at-one-ment, becoming at one with God. We try to become at one with God on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But the idea behind this prayer is to hope that when we pass on from this world, that we be at one with God.
The great Jewish codifier and philosopher Maimonides speaks about how we can become at one with God. Usually doing teshuvah (repentance), the serious attempt to change our behavior, can bring about atonement. Sometimes teshuvah together with the observance of Yom Kippur can bring about atonement. According to Maimonides, for certain more serious sins, teshuvah, Yom Kippur, and suffering in this life can bring about atonement. But for the most serious of sins, none of these are enough. Only death can make us at one with God once again. To quote Maimonides, “a person who sins by profaning God’s name, even if that person does repentance and Yom Kippur arrives, and if he stands by his repentance while experiencing suffering, he will not have total atonement until death.” (Hilchot Teshuva 1:4)
What a strange idea reflected in the vidui prayer, that some people have to die before they can become totally at one with God. It seems to go against everything I have taught about Judaism, that we are focused on living in this world, that Judaism is a religion of life rather than death. This theological idea seems to breed a certain hopelessness, that only when someone dies will they finally return to God’s good graces. Of course, this assumes that a part of us survives death and moves on to eternal life. The idea of eternal life is not found in the Bible; Judaism (and Christianity) borrowed it from the Greeks.
Still, the Rabbis of the Talmud assumes we have an eternal soul and if we fail to find atonement in this world, we can do so in the next world. One of my favorite examples comes from this week’s Torah portion. Korach certainly profaned God’s name. He led a major rebellion against Moses and the laws of the Torah. Tradition teaches that Korach approached Moses with a garment entirely of blue threads, and said, “Moses, you taught us to put fringes with a thread of blue on all garments. What if the entire garment is made of threads of blue? Does it need fringes?” “Of course,” answered Moses. Korach responded, “The laws of the Torah are ridiculous.” So the rebellion began. In the end, the earth opened up to swallow Korah and his followers.
Did Korach and his followers find atonement in the next world? The rabbis of the Talmud have a wonderful passage. An Arab merchant showed Rabbah bar bar Channah a crack in the ground emitting smoke. He said that this was the spot where the earth swallowed up Korach. The merchant then asked what the rabbi heard at that spot. A voice came forth, “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are mistaken.” (Baba Batra 74a) Korach had changed his ways in the next world.
Of course, the object is to find atonement in the eyes of God while still in this world. That is the entire purpose of Yom Kippur. But based on the deathbed ritual of vidui, it is never too late. Our death serves as a final chance to become at one with God.

“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.

“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.
“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.”

“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.


“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.


“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.



“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.


“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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.



“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)



“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.