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Balancing the Individual and the Communal

  • Balancing the Individual and the Communal

    Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

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-to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 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 Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?" (Numbers 16:1-3)

D'var Torah

A few months ago, I was flying on a plane from New York to Los Angeles. Seated beside me was a couple and their portable DVD player. I couldn't help but glance over every once in a while, as they laughed at the plot unfolding on their small screen, and reflect at the wide array of portable personal entertainment choices that are available to us today. It seems like only yesterday that we all watched the one, airline-provided in-flight movie.

Shortly thereafter, I attended Shabbat morning services at a local Conservative synagogue. As I approached the main sanctuary, an usher stopped me and explained the various services that were taking place that morning: in the social hall, a meditation service; in one of the classrooms, a service for young people; in the chapel, a traditional minyan; and in the main sanctuary, a "learner's" service.

As we chatted about the variety of services offered, the usher mentioned a recent commentary he had read about our changing culture. The article discussed the phenomenon of Apple iPods in New York today. With an iPod, you can choose your music in a way never before imagined; apparently iPods and their headphones are as natural an accessory on the streets of New York City today as hats were in the 1940s. The article noted that with the advent of iPods, a completely self-selected and self-styled audible world could be created even on the streets of Manhattan. But how does this self-selected, individual lifestyle affect us as social animals, as members of a larger community and world?

This week's Torah portion, Korach, opens with the self-styled rebellion of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On, together with 250 men of repute in the Israelite community. The portion begins with their rallying cry against Moses and Aaron, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?" Biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz states in her commentary to this portion, "Note that they do not say: 'All the congregation is holy'– as a unit but: 'All the congregation are holy', 'every one of them'– each one taken, individually" (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: WZO, 1980] p. 183).

Leibowitz suggests that their rebellion was an assertion of individual superiority and personal privilege above that of communal responsibility and duty. "Korah's followers were simply a band of malcontents, each harbouring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron and hoping thereby to attain their individual desires. What would really happen, however, would be that they would quarrel amongst themselves, as each one strove to attain his selfish ambitions" (ibid., p. 182).

We live in a society and are members of a religious movement that espouses individual autonomy. Technology has helped to expand our horizons, creating a "global village," while at the same time allowing us to develop ever-more self-selected and self-styled worlds. The move toward multiple Shabbat services within a synagogue setting is, no doubt, an indirect result of the 100-plus television channels that we can tune into twenty-four hours a day. But what does it say for the concept of community?

Certainly, I am not implying that we are moving in a direction toward Korach and his band-each an individual without a sense of responsibility and duty toward our larger congregational communities. The reforms that are instituted in our congregations, including multiple concurrent services, are a communal response to the realities of the world in which we live. But it is important for us to consider the value of the ongoing struggle to strike a balance between individual autonomy and freedom on the one hand and the role and nature of community on the other.

For nearly a year, we have been marking the 350th anniversary of Jews in America. In his review of American Jewish history for "Celebrate 350," Professor Jonathan D. Sarna notes, "The great question that Jews faced in the wake of the Revolution was whether Judaism as they had known it could be reconciled with America's new spirit of freedom and democracy. Could Jews maintain the traditional structure that bound them together and promoted group survival and yet at the same time also accommodate new political and cultural and religious realities?" (Jonathan D. Sarna, American Jewish History 1654-2004, 2004, pp. 2-3)

The question our communal ancestors faced over 200 years ago remains just as poignant and important today. As we look toward the future, may we continue to struggle with this question as a community, remembering that our future lies not in responding like Korach and his band of rebels, interested only in our own individual motivations and needs, but in responding as members of a holy community, with the motivations and needs of our community guiding our decision making.

By the Way...

  • Community comes from the word "common." The word assumes an awareness that we share in the most basic ways: tears, loss, love, illness, joy, fear, birth, death, life. We are not meant to live alone. We are not supposed to ignore or deny what we have in common as human beings. That is the power of community. It is the acknowledgment of the universals of life, the sameness, the common ground. It is the knowledge that I will never be alone when I am sick; that I can share the mixed emotions I will have when my children go away to college, that when I pray for the secret desires of my soul, I will be joined by others doing the same. I live amid strangers, acquaintances, friends, and even a few people whom I don't like. What makes us a community is the sense of shared responsibility: when one is in need, the other simply responds. (Karyn D. Kedar, God Whispers: Stories of the Soul, Lessons of the Heart [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999], p. 105)
  • Many questions face American Jews as the mark their 350th anniversary on American soil. Should they . . . Strengthen religious authority, or promote religious autonomy? Harmonize Judaism with contemporary culture, or uphold Jewish tradition against contemporary culture? Compromise for the sake of Jewish unity, or stand firm for cherished Jewish principles? (Sarna, ibid., p. 7)

Your Guide

  1. How do we gauge (and self-check) whether our responses to communal issues and pressures come from a Korach-like place of personal privilege or a "holy" place of communal responsibility and concern?
  2. Consider Sarna's comments about the questions facing American Jews in their 350th year. How can we fashion a communal response to these questions without sliding into concern only for our own individual needs and desires, as did Korach and his followers?
Reference Materials: 

Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914