On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Korach: Questionable Intentions

In Jewish history and culture, there has been no shortage of arguments; in fact, the entire Talmud is composed of arguments about some of the most important issues in history. In Parashat Korach, Korach is clearly upset and challenges authority – but why does he do this?  Is he a rebel with a cause, or is he acting out with no clear intention?  This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses the importance of intent behind leadership and fighting for a cause.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to Episode 24 of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We really do want to hear what you think. So, talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about Parashat Korach this week, and he asks us, what is the difference between being a leader who is all about taking and one who is all about giving?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Korach. Korach is an individual. He is a very, very strong leader. I always think of Korach, and I think of that movie-- the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause.

The question for our commentators, and the question for our Torah text is what actually is Korach's rebellion? What is he upset about? He's clearly upset. He clearly challenges all those in authority. But the question is, what is the basis of his rebellion?

Is he a rebel with a cause, or is he a rebel without a cause? Well, some of our great commentators-- particularly Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, who's a 19th century religious Zionist, says, you can find everything you want to find out about this parashah in the opening two words.

It says “va’yikach Korach.”

So, it basically says, in the singular, "And Korach took." He said, that tells you who Korach is. He is a leader who's all about taking. He's not a leader who's about giving and doing for. It's about him.

So, this is not a 21st century reading. This is a 19th century reading. And there's a huge debate within our Jewish tradition about when are we having an argument for the sake of Heaven? A machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument that's based on principle. And when are we having an argument that's about personality, or about what I want, what I believe I need or deserve?

And in our Jewish tradition, we love a good argument. We're not actually a tradition that shies away from arguments. In fact, the Talmud-- the greatest compendium of Jewish wisdom, which is 2 and 1/2 million words if you add up all the commentaries on it-- is a collection of arguments. But in their essence, they're arguments about the most important issues in Jewish life. And it's not enough to be the head rabbi of a generation or of a community.

In our tradition, it's about what's the quality of the argument? What's the issue that you're addressing? How compellingly do you make your case? No matter who you are-- you could be a brand new, minted young, upstart rabbi. If you've got a case to make and you make it well, everyone throughout history's going to not only consider that, but take that into account.

So, we have, also, an amazing work by Abraham Joshua Heschel which is about the Kotzker Rebbe-- one of the great Hasidic masters, who loved Korach. The Kotzker said that religious leaders sometimes find themselves being too passive, too always willing to compromise. We need backbone, said the Kotzker. And Korach-- whatever you think about Korach, he had a backbone. He was willing to stand his ground. It didn't matter that he was challenging Moses and all the leaders of our people.

But we find ourselves, at a moment now, in the Jewish community in particular-- but probably certainly here in North America and in the USA in particular-- we're pretty good about having public arguments, but they're not very respectful oftentimes. In our Jewish community, we have arguments that also are not always for the sake of heaven.

So how do we learn to raise our voices, to be strong, to take the Kotzker's inspiration and not shy away from a principled argument? But how, also, do we learn to listen to the other, and to not make it about us, but to make it about the ideals of our people? The ideal could be justice. The ideal could be equality. The ideal could be peace. And those are things that we should not just debate, but we should work very, very concretely together to shape that world of justice, wholeness, and compassion. So, when I see the story of Korach as told in the book of Numbers, I don't just see a biblical story. I see a narrative of our own time, and how is it that we can be rebels with a cause?

I came of age in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and rebellion was all in the air. There was lots of rebellion around intolerance, about racism, about segregation, and we were a people that were at the forefront of those big, big revolutions. And we continue to be.

The question is, how do we make sure that we're always about rebelling with a principle, an ideal at the core? And I think that the essence of the Korach story-- and he gets swallowed up. There's a showdown in Korach. But it really raises to us the importance of being a leader, being a leader of principle, and also to make sure that we foster arguments -- machloket l’shem shamayim.

Not the arguments of Korach, who the tradition ultimately reads as someone who just wanted to be in power. He actually didn't have a principled argument. Let's make sure, in our communal debates, whether in our communities, in our national and North American discourse, or in our global discourse about the issues that matter most, that we're always, always based on principle. And if we could take it as a very, very simple reminder-- Korach was all about taking. Jewish leadership is all about giving.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org, and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!

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