Showdown at the OK Corral

This week’s parasha (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) is named after its key protagonist, a feisty fellow by the name of Korach, born into the priestly tribe of Levi, the same leadership tribe as Moshe/Moses and Aaron. The scene is the desert: the Israelites are complaining and want a change, wishing they were back in good old Egypt. The vibe is just right for a populist revolt. Korach steps into the breach and stirs up trouble. He basically demands an answer to this familiar question: “Who made you the boss over us?” Korach asserts that Moshe is an elitist, busy interacting with God while leaving everyone else out, and then proceeds to organize a band of people who agree with him to confront Moshe.

You can imagine that neither Moshe, his big brother Aaron, nor God are pleased with this uprising. After he gets over his initial shock, Moshe consults with God and receives instructions for something like a gunfight at the OK Corral (minus the guns), in which Korach and his cronies will be swallowed up by what seems like a gigantic earthquake.

Before we proceed to talk about what ultimately happened to Korach and his sons, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who feels some empathy with Korach and his position. This is what Korach says, verbatim, in chapter 16 verse 3:

“You have too much! For all the community, they are all holy, and in their midst is the Lord, and why should you raise yourselves up over the Lord’s assembly?

Aren’t Korach and 250 of his closest friends just demanding what is due them? That is, to share the leadership? After all, God has told the people repeatedly that they are all a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (look at Exodus 19:6).

Some of us are puzzled by the searing condemnation and punishment Korach receives for raising the issue of a more democratic system in which Moshe would share leadership with the other Levites. For an insightful commentary on why siding with Korach really is missing the boat, read this piece by Dr. Benjamin Sommer of JTS.

Now, let’s go back to find out more about the fates of Korach, his buddies who joined in his rebellion, and his sons. As you saw in G-dcast’s video, no one remains; they are swallowed up and completely disappear — no one is left except Korach’s sons, who didn’t take their father’s side. And what turns out to be a strange twist is that the guy’s sons went on to write some dozen or so of the 150 liturgical poems found in the Bible, called Psalms. Many of these psalms still appear in Jewish daily worship and some are recited on Sabbaths and special occasions.

These poems are filled with profound insights expressed eloquently and with great beauty. Korach’s sons are mentioned by name in Exodus 6:24 — you can read more about them (and Korach himself) here.

Traditionally, Korach remains a power-hungry trouble-maker, despite the fact that on the surface, he seems to be raising a valid point about sharing leadership. And yet, his sons become known for their spiritual poetry, opening us up to the mysteries of life.

One more thing: in the Talmud, there is a shorthand way of classifying arguments between scholars: those that are “for the sake of heaven” and those that are not. The following quote is from the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 5:17:

Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of permanent value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. And which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his followers.

Korach gets a bad rap — and deservedly so, despite his seemingly compelling critique.

To think about:

  1. Even if Korah had a point, what do you think of the way he went about with his argument? Did he approach Moshe privately to have a quiet chat about his (and others’) dissatisfaction? Or was he looking for a fight? When you have difficult emotional issues to grapple with concerning divergent religious traditions, how do you resolve them?
  2. What do you think of the family dynamics in our story? Cousin Korach spearheaded what turned into a huge rift with Cousin Moshe. Do families have propensities to argue with each other? And what about Korach’s sons? How did they manage to stay out of the rebellion? Is there a message for us when we read that Korach’s sons became composers of liturgical poetry? How does it happen that family members can have such divergent religious views as Korach and his sons?

Sight and Smell, Bodies, and Losing Faith

To consider as you read about the week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa:

  1. Which of your senses is the most important to you in understanding the world? Is this also the sense that helps you tap into your spiritual self?
  2. Why does the writer of the Bible use the human body when describing God?
  3. Why did the Israelites lose faith in Moshe’s returning to them? What makes you lose faith in someone or something?

Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35) starts out slowly, with more instructions from God about a census and a special kind of tax for each Israelite, and then proceeds to add more instructions about the construction of the washing basin, or laver, that the priests will use when they offer sacrifices. Then, in chapter 30, verse 22, we get a recipe for a fabulous scented oil, which is to be used only by the priests. It sounds absolutely out of this world, like it was concocted by some Parisian perfumery. A few verses later, we get another recipe, this time for incense. One might get the idea that the sense of smell was very important to this desert tribe.

Chapter 31 changes direction and we read about one outstanding artisan, Bezalel, the son of Uri, the grandson of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. Apparently, Bezalel was able to bring a divine spirit into everything he designed. He was a master craftsperson and worked in many media including gold, silver, cooper, precious stones, and wood. And God lets Moshe/Moses know that God wants Bezalel in charge of designing the Tent of Meeting and all of its furnishings. No wonder that the early Zionists named the Jerusalem-based college of arts “Bezalel,” after this master. It seems pretty obvious that it was important for God to have things look a certain way. Now maybe we are getting the idea that the sense of sight was important to the Israelites.

Now, a detour for a special paragraph, chapter 31 verses 12-17: the verses describing what is to happen on the 7th day, the Sabbath day. These verses are recited every Shabbat at Kiddush, the blessing over wine at the noontime meal; these verses express deeply held beliefs about what is and what is not to be done on the 7th day. The Sabbath is described as a “sign”, an “ot,” the very same word used for the first rainbow and for the circumcision of male babies on their 8th day of life. It is a sign of an agreement between the Israelites and God, for all times. More recently, around 100 years ago, the Zionist thinker, Asher Ginsberg, better known by his pen name of Ahad Ha’am (“one of the people”), riffed on this verse when he said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.” There is something rather profound about making the 7th day radically different from the other six. In fact, the newish organization Reboot has instituted one day a year as the day to unplug in their Sabbath Manifesto. Read it to see what people are saying! By the way, this year’s day to unplug is March 19-20 — will you be giving it a try?

Finally, we get to some big time drama in chapter 32. And I mean big! Chapter 32 is the story of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. Lots of fireworks, literal and metaphoric.

Our G-dcast storyteller focuses on the sense of sight in this week’s parasha, and how important it is to be able to see something with our own eyes. We already know that hearing is important to the tribes of Israel—after all, they are told “Sh’ma Yisrael” — Listen Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One. Listen, Hear, Pay Attention, Take-in-the-Oneness oneness of God.

But now, we concentrate on the sense of vision, of seeing, of being in-sight-ful. Why did the people freak out so much in Moshe’s absence that they needed to build an idol, a golden calf? Did they have so little faith that their leader, Moshe, would return? Did they have so little faith in the God who brought them out of Egypt? Well, apparently they had lost their faith, perhaps following the adage: out of sight, out of mind. They demanded that Aaron, Moshe’s brother, build them a molten calf of gold.

The calf is forged in the flames, the people sacrifice to it, feast, and party like there was no tomorrow (see chapter 32 verse 6).

But, there was a tomorrow, and I bet you can already predict what God is going to say and do. God sees the festivities and goes berserk. God wants to wipe them out, just the way God wiped out all of creation way back in the days of Noah back in Genesis. But Moshe is on the side of this rag-tag bunch of freed slaves and argues with God, just the way Avraham/Abraham argued with God to spare the people of Sodom and G’morrah, again back in Genesis. Good thing we have these loyal and stalwart leaders on the side of the Jewish people — we seem to need someone strong who can argue with God, even when we mess up. And God relents: “And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people” (chapter 32 verse 14).

So Moshe heads down the mountain with the tablets of the law that were inscribed with the writing of God, and stops in his tracks when he see the calf and the dancing. Major meltdown. Now it is Moshe who sees red, and is so angry that he throws the tablets to the ground, shattering them to smithereens. Oy! There will be a resolution — it is worth reading all the way to the end of chapter 32 to see how this drama ends.

One last narrative in our parasha that is filled with both joy and angst comes in chapter 33. It centers on an intimate and poignant conversation between Moshe and God. In verses 7-11, we read how it is when Moshe goes to speak/commune with God. What do the people do when they see Moshe enter the Tent of Meeting? How do they know Moshe is going to communicate with God? Verse 11 tells us: “The Lord would speak to Moshe face to face, as one man speaks with another.”

In verses 12-23 we are privileged to eavesdrop on one of the most fraught conversations between Moshe and God; we can actually hear the pleading voice of this tireless servant of God, this protector of Israel, who begs God to let Godself be seen intimately. And God demurs, lets Moshe know that even he, the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, may not actually see God’s face and live; but God will enable Moshe to feel the Divine Presence in a way no other man can. Verses 22-23: “…as My Divine Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and shield you with My hand, until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Lots of questions of course, beginning with: I thought that God had no body and no form… what does God mean when God mentions God’s own face, hand, and back? For one commentary on this conversation, see what Chancellor Arnie Eisen of JTS has to say.

Project Runway: Priest Edition

Last week, we read in some detail about the building of the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, aka the Miskhan, aka the Dwelling Place of the Divine. In this week’s parasha, called Tetzaveh, we read the elaborate descriptions of the clothing that the priests must wear when they serve God.

Our storyteller from G-dcast comments that the Torah is often sketchy about details we would like to know more about. But here, in describing the clothes of the priests, “the Torah goes into OCD mode” — there are so many precise and detailed descriptions, one might think that God was instructing Ralph Lauren on his new fall fashion line.

Besides the ephod and the breastplate of decision (see Exodus chapter 28 verses 6-21), where gorgeous precious stones are enumerated (carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli, and jasper), I love the description of the hem of the priests’ robes (verses 33-35).

Jackie Hoffman, in her 'Shavuot' song. Click the image to listen. (Note: lyrics aren't fully PG-friendly.)

The yarns to be used are blue, crimson and purple; the design specifies embroidered pomegranates, and they are to be placed all the way around the bottom hem. And then, in between each pomegranate, there is to be a golden bell attached, a real bell, which will produce sound as the priest moves. Sounds exquisite, on par with the clothes the women of Downton Abbey wear when they visit their cousins’ castle in Scotland! In our own times, the highest ranking priests of the Catholic Church wear sacral vestments that are in the tradition of these ornate, highly decorative and expensive garments.

This leads us to ask some questions about both the Torah’s descriptions and why so many religious traditions dictate the exact kind of clothing to be worn when one is serving God. Why is it so important to know about the sash, the turban, the robed tunic, the exact colors, and what fabrics need to be part of the clothing? And further, why should God care so much about what the Priests wear when they perform the ritual sacrifices on behalf of the people? When a Catholic worshipper of today goes to church and witnesses the Mass performed by richly garbed cardinals (or even the Pope), how does the clothing worn by the priests impact the experience of the worshipper?

Anglican Archbishop and the Catholic Pope know what to wear!

As we approach the next book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, we will see that many prescribed rituals fall into the “OCD” mode, as the video’s storyteller says. Look at the instructions for the sacrifices in Exodus 29 verses 19-21. This is what the priests, in their finery, must do: they must “…slaughter the ram and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and on the ridges of his sons’ right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet; and dash the rest of the blood against every side of the alter round about.” Wow! Talk about precise instructions that are pretty inscrutable. Here we have it in abundance.

Even though Jews no longer offer animal sacrifices, we still have laws that are considered puzzling and have no obvious purpose. Those laws are known as “hukkim” as opposed to laws which make some common sense, which are known as “mishpatim.” A mishpat (single form of mishpatim) is something like “don’t steal” or “don’t kill.” The sorts of laws in the category of hukkim are like the laws of kashrut, dietary restrictions for keeping kosher. We just do them (if we want to be observant) because they were commanded, not because they necessarily make sense or make society work any better.

Before we leave the parasha of Tetzaveh, with its opening focus on the clothing of the priests, I also want to acknowledge the lovely coincidence that the Torah reading points to the holiday that comes on its heels — the joyous holiday of Purim, which falls on the 14th of Adar, which is the evening of February 23 through the 24th this year. Parashat Tetzaveh and Purim both have clothing and costumes interwoven in them. One of the fun aspects of the Purim festivities is dressing up in costumes and disguises. This is our topsy-turvy festival where nothing is what it seems. In Hebrew, the word for clothing is beg’ed, the root, b.g.d. This root also forms the word bag’ad, to betray or lie. Think of it this way: when we wear clothes, we cover-up our bodies and a “cover-up” is also used to describe hiding something, not being transparent, maybe even betraying someone’s trust. On the holiday of Purim, we masquerade; we put on costumes to appear to be someone other than ourselves. What is it about covering up or hiding oneself that is so central to this festival? And what is it that the clothing of the priests is covering up, if anything?

Wishing you a very merry Purim!!

Come Darkness

To consider as you read and watch this week’s installment:

  • How can a story change in meaning when its told from the perspective of a secondary character or witness?
  • Can you think of an experience from your life that would benefit from a retelling through someone else’s perspective?
  • Is there a habit you’ve formed that, though you know it’s not positive, you keep repeating despite others’ urgings to stop? Why do you think you continue it?

The parasha last week left us off in the middle of the story — those cliff-hangers again! We read about the seven plagues that God brought down on Egypt, as its hard-hearted leader, the Pharaoh, kept changing his mind (or hardening his heart) in conversation after conversation with Moshe/Moses, our leader and teacher.

This week, Moshe and Aharon/Aaron (the two brothers) are told by God in the opening words of the parasha, “Bo el Pharoh,” usually translated as, “Go to Pharaoh.” Take a look at how this week’s storyteller on G-dcast interprets this phrase.

Joel Stanley, the storyteller, has chosen to share this tale from the perspective of the older and more articulate brother, Aharon. It really is a different point of view and worth talking over. What do you think of the way Joel understands the command, Bo/Come?

One would think that this Pharaoh would already know the drill: first he says he will allow the Israelites to worship in the desert, then, as they begin to leave, he changes his mind. Then, he’s dealt a mighty blow such as frogs, lice, locusts, and the rest of the plagues as a response to his changing of mind. What doesn’t he understand about reneging on his word? Why does God give the Pharaoh so many chances to let the Israelites go? And what is it about human behavior that the more one does something, the more likely one is to go on doing it? Once the Pharaoh is set on the path of saying “NO, NO, NO, I WILL NOT LET THEM GO!” he ends up incapable of doing the right thing.

The ninth plague brings a terrible and utterly black darkness on the land for 3 solid days and nights. Somehow, this darkness, described as “thick” (Exodus 10:22) seems more horrible than the other plagues. Again, Pharaoh brings Moshe to court and tells him that he and his people can go to the desert to offer sacrifices. But Moshe ups the ante and tells the Pharaoh that not only does he have to let them go, he also has to provide the livestock for them to sacrifice to their God in the desert — kind of like proving who is in charge. And Pharaoh just cannot abide. We are told that “the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go” (Exodus 10:27). What do you think has happened? Who is pulling the strings? Does the Pharaoh have free-will? Or has he just become so unable to do the right thing that he lands in a rut with no agency of his own?

We know the terrible 10th plague — the death of all first born Egyptians — will completely un-do the Pharaoh. This terrible price seemed to be what needed to happen in order that the Israelites could emerge from their bondage. Read the description in chapter 11 verses 4-8 to fully appreciate the tragedy as it was unfolding. Everyone was affected: the first born of the cattle, of the slave girl, of the Pharaoh himself. It sounds positively Shakespearean.

In Chapter 12, the scene changes radically. We are now in the Israelite camp, reading the rudimentary instructions of what was to take place in the days leading up to the great exodus of the Israelite nation.

Starting from the first day of the month, the month associated with spring and rebirth, now called Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the Israelites are told what to do. They must take a lamb (remember, it’s spring and there are many new baby lambs being born) and keep it from the 10th day of the month until the 14th day of the month and then, that evening, the beginning of the 15th of Nisan, they must roast it and share it with their household and with any neighbors who don’t have enough people in their immediate family to allow a whole lamb to be consumed. All of this must happen at night and none of the lamb can be kept for “leftovers.” Beginning with verse 11, we have a description of how we are meant to have this feast: in a hurry! And it is to be called “the Passover offering to the Lord.”

What’s truly amazing to me is that still today, on the evening corresponding to the 15th day of Nisan (usually in April or late March), Jewish families gather to tell the story of what happened back in 1250 BCE, or roughly 3200 years ago (some say the year was 1440, so 3400 years ago). We gather as families around tables and read from a little book called the Haggadah/The Telling, with phrases lifted straight out of this story in our parasha. We re-enact what these Israelites went through as they were readying themselves for liberation. And just as the children asked then (Exodus 12:26), “what is the meaning of this rite?” we prompt our children to ask us, with “Four Questions” to allow us to re-live this event.

The parasha concludes by telling us that this special, hurried roasted lamb dinner is to be remembered as the day on which we were freed from the house of bondage (Exodus 13:3-10) and that we are to “keep this institution at its set time from year to year.” Taking that memory one step further, perhaps we need to think a bit more about what it means to be a slave, a commodity, less than fully human in today’s world.

Because of people like journalists Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn and their searing report, Half the Sky, we know there are still many people (mostly women and girls) in the world today who are enslaved. They may be sex slaves or indentured servants and unable to live their lives in freedom. Perhaps out of gratitude for our own freedom recounted in this week’s parasha, each of us must do something to help free those still in bondage.