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?

Let My People Go!

For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:

  1. Can you remember a time when you rejoiced in the pain suffered by someone whom you thought of as your enemy? What was that like? Did you feel justified or diminished? What would it take to set your joy aside?
  2. Why do you suppose that God neither hears the cries of the Israelite slaves nor remembers the covenant made with the Israelite ancestors, until now? Why did Israel have to be enslaved for so long?
  3. If the Pharaoh kept changing his mind and “hardening his heart,” why did the God of Israel keep sending more plagues? What do you think was going on with Pharaoh?

Last week we focused on the birth of our nation; we were introduced to the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher). This week’s parasha, Va-eira, propels us right into the heart of the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from oppression to redemption — all familiar phrases that echo in our heads and hearts — likely imprinted there at the Passover seder, the most celebrated Jewish ritual of the entire year.

But wait, doesn’t Passover come in the spring? And aren’t we now reading this parasha in the dead of winter? Yes and Yes. The Torah narrative doesn’t correspond to the seasons, and it does seem like this story is coming too early in the cycle of the seasons; on the other hand, we can think of it as a preview of the next major Jewish festival.

So much of what happens in Va-eira is familiar: the story of Moshe and his brother, Aharon/Aaron going to the Pharaoh to tell him “Let my people go!” If you are like me, when you hear this, you immediately set it to the music of the African American “spirituals,” or songs that the black slaves of the American South composed, soulful melodies of sadness and uplift.

The parasha opens with a little speech God gives to Moshe outlining God’s own identity; telling Moshe that God’s name is YHVH, a 4 letter name that is never vocalized but stands in for the defining statement, “I AM EXISTENCE, TOTALITY”; and reminding Moshe that this God of the Hebrews intends to keep the covenant (brit) that was made with Avraham/Abraham, Yitzhak/Isaac, and Ya’akov/Jacob so many generations before (Exodus 6:2-4.) God/YHVH then commands Moshe to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the message that the Israelites are a people under the protection of YHVH and that they must be liberated.

The rest of the parasha is a back and forth power play between Moshe and the Pharaoh, aided by what we have come to know as “the 10 plagues,” although in this parasha, we just get the first 7 — next week we’ll find out about the last three. God knows that the Pharaoh is stubborn and will need lots of persuasion to allow his cheap labor force to leave the land of Egypt, so God addresses this issue straight on… read about it in Exodus 7:14-18. God tells Moshe to accost the Pharaoh in the morning, when he comes out for his morning ablutions at the Nile River. This body of water is like the life force of Egypt — fresh, potable water in the desert. And now the God of the Hebrews is going to turn it to blood!!!

Following that first plague, we read about the frogs that will appear all over Egypt. This second plague has been turned into a very popular children’s song at many seder tables; at my seder table, I place some colorful little plastic frogs around the table, to give little kids something to play with and to remind us of this plague. We make the frogs kinda cutesy as you can see in the song:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more sober and scary depiction of what it could have been like to experience the plague of frogs, seen in the movie, Magnolia. (Viewer advisory: yucky stuff.)

After an absolutely horrible week of frogs everywhere, Pharaoh says he has had enough and begs Moshe to ask the God of the Hebrews, YHVH, to return the frogs to the river. Of course, anyone who knows human psychology can now predict that the Pharaoh will change his mind. And of course, he does… (Exodus 8:11). And so on and on it goes, one plague after another, with horror and destruction raining down on the Egyptians until YHVH stops the plague and Pharaoh, in turn, reneges on his promise to let the Israelite slaves leave.

The storyteller in this week’s G-dcast video points out that when we recite the 10 plagues that the Egyptians suffered as part of the Passover seder, we diminish the amount of wine in our goblets by one drop for each plague, to symbolize our sympathy with the plight of our enemy. After all, wine is intended to gladden the heart, and we are removing some of that happy-making substance. This comes to teach us to have compassion, even for the suffering of our enemies — it’s the polar opposite of schadenfreude.

All of these natural human emotions — changing your mind when the worst of consequences lets up, not jumping up and down with glee when your enemy is getting pummeled, and hardening your heart against the human misery and pain — are part of this story.

Jospeh’s Big Reveal

Last week, we left our hero, Yosef/Joseph, in a heated conversational exchange with one of his brothers, Yehuda/Judah, who speaks on behalf of all of the brothers and pleads with Yosef not to keep the youngest brother, Binyamin/Benjamin, as a slave. We were literally stopped in our tracks in the middle of the conversation!

Now we take up the story in the middle of that conversation, with Yehuda’s heartfelt and poignant speech to save his youngest brother. Va-yigash (and he [Yehuda] approached) is the name of this parasha; in it we hear the longest and most sophisticated speech in all of the book of Genesis.

This long discourse takes 17 verses. Yehuda recounts much of the recent history of what has transpired with the brothers, adding that their elderly father, Yakov, would surely die from grief if this son, Binyamin, is enslaved in Egypt. The atmosphere couldn’t be more tension-filled. Everyone seems to be holding his breath to see what will happen next. Yehuda goes on to offer himself in place of Binyamin. He says all of this to the grand Egyptian vizier, not knowing that it’s Yosef, his brother. He ends his plea by asking Yosef to please take him instead, “for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” And then he is silent.

You could hear a pin drop — the room is absolutely still. Breaking the silence, Yosef yells out and demands that the court to be emptied; the only ones who are allowed to stay are these men from Canaan. When the room is emptied, Yosef breaks down in loud sobs, crying, as he makes his true identity known to the brothers who once threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. He says, “I am Yosef…. Is my father still well?” His brothers are speechless and cannot believe that this guy, who looks and acts so Egyptian and has so much power, is actually their little brother, the dreamer and braggart, now completely grown up and chief advisor to the Pharaoh.

There is a tearful scene of reconciliation as Yosef tells them that he has forgiven them for their wrongdoing so many years before. He now believes that it was God’s will that he ended up in Egypt so he could devise a plan to save that country and his own clan from the severe famine that they are all experiencing. Wow!! He instructs them to return home and bring their father and the entire tribe of Israelites down to Egypt so he can take care of them properly. Everyone is hugging everyone else and crying, the text tells us. I think they were probably laughing as well, from relief, from joy, from a break in the tension.

News reaches the Pharaoh who bestows gifts to Yosef’s family, “the best of the land of Egypt.” All of Yakov’s sons get ready to return home, laden with wagons bearing several changes of clothing, silver, and provisions like bread, grain, and other food for the journey to Canaan. Yosef tells his brothers, “don’t be quarrelsome with each other on the way back.” Why do you think he gives this particular piece of advice? What mood do you think the brothers were in that would cause them to get into fights?

The caravan leaves Egypt and after days, they reach Canaan. There are several midrashim (rabbinic interpretations to fill in the story) about how the brothers will tell their father Yakov that his beloved son Yosef, to whom he gave the coat of many colors, is still alive. They don’t want him to be shocked and have a heart-attack (God forbid), so how will they handle the news? The rabbis of the Talmud come up with a great little story that acts as a gloss to Genesis 45: 26-27. They remember that Yosef warned them not to alarm their aged father. So the brothers summoned Serach, the daughter of Asher, and asked her to sit before Yakov and play for him on the lyre; in this gentle, soothing manner she could reveal to her old grandfather that his favorite son was still alive, down in Egypt. Serach played the lyre well and sang gently: “Yosef my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.”

Serach bat (daughter) of Asher acquires a rich life in the midrash/rabbinic stories. She is actually named in the Torah, in the genealogy of this parasha, Genesis 46:17. And because she is the only girl listed by name, the rabbis embellished this tiny mention with fabulous stories about her: how she lives for hundreds of years; how she identifies Moshe/Moses as the liberator; and how, when the Children of Israel finally leave Egypt 400 years later, she alone knows exactly where Yosef’s bones are buried in the Nile River, and she shows Moshe so that Yosef’s bones can be carried out of Egypt, as per his instructions…. But wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. For more on Serach bat Asher, look at this resource from MyJewishLearning.

The rest of the parasha deals with the migration of the Children of Israel into Egypt and how they become a protected people among the Egyptians, how they are given the choicest geographical areas in Egypt by the Pharaoh, and how they prospered. We also get to read how Yosef manages the famine by establishing a system of serfdom among the population (not such a pretty solution, but the Egyptians were grateful nonetheless).

Next week, we will come to the end of the book of Genesis, the first of the 5 books of Moses. Stay tuned!

To consider:

  1. How do you feel about the system Yosef devises to enable all to have food (Genesis 47: 23-26)? Do you think the ends justify the means?
  2. What do you think about the way Yosef reveals himself to his brothers? Why did he take so long to tell them the truth about who he was? Did Yehuda’s speech have anything to do with Yosef’s finally breaking down?
  3. Have you ever been moved by a powerful speech, spoken from the heart? When? What moved you?

Joseph: The Good, The Bad, The Tricky

For the past few weeks, the names of all the parshiot (weekly Torah readings) have started with “Va, meaning “and.” There was Va-Yetze (And He Went Out), Va-Yishlach (And he sent) and Va-Yeshev (And he settled). I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s easy for me to get confused about what happens in each of these chunks of torah.

This week we get to Miketz (After [two years]), and we land smack dab in the middle of the Yosef/Joseph novella. Today’s blog is a kind of re-cap of this irresistible story. When we left off, our hero was still languishing in the dungeon after the chief cupbearer was restored to Pharaoh’s service, having forgotten all about the interpreter of his dream (Yosef himself!).

If this were a TV show, across the bottom of the screen, you would see this: Two years later…

The story opens in Pharaoh’s court and we are told of a strange dream Pharaoh had in which seven “handsome and sturdy” cows appeared and then, right behind them, seven “ugly and gaunt” cows, who proceeded to eat the seven handsome, sturdy cows. Sounds just like a dream, huh? Then he dreamt a similar second dream. When he awoke in the morning and told his dreams to his wise men, none could interpret them (Genesis chapter 42 verses 1-8). Luckily, the chief cupbearer remembered that Hebrew kid in prison — the one who had correctly interpreted the dreams of his fellow inmates — and he told the Pharaoh about Yosef. So, Yosef was brought up to court, cleaned up and decked out nicely to meet the ruler who then proceeded to tell Yosef his dreams. Yosef offered the interpretation that there would be seven years of plentiful agricultural yields in Egypt, followed by seven years of severe famine. Yosef also recommended that a very wise person be appointed to collect the extra grain during the seven years of plenty and store it for the famine years. The Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Yosef a viceroy or vizier, elevating him to second in command of the country. Wow!! What a meteoric rise in status!

Yosef gets a new name, Zaphenath-Paneah, and he takes an Egyptian wife, Asenath, with whom he has two children. He is re-made in the image of a powerful, influential Egyptian vizier. Some say that Yosef provides us with a model of the first assimilated Israelite — he looks, acts, and talks just like the Egyptians in the court.

In fact, he is so assimilated that when brothers come down to Egypt to procure rations because of the famine back home in Cana’an, they don’t even recognize the bragging, arrogant teenage brother they sold into slavery so many years before. (An aside: we typically read this Torah portion on the Shabbat of Hanukkah, the holiday in which the Maccabees fought the Greek Romans whose influence in Israel caused the many Jews to assimilate. Assimilation seems to have exerted a strong influence on Jews throughout our history. And it’s not a simple answer to figure out if assimilation is completely pernicious — look at Yosef in Egypt!)

Now the drama circles back to the family and we read of several encounters between Yosef and his brothers. Since Yosef recognizes the brothers, but they utterly fail to recognize him, he has a great opportunity to engineer some power-plays. He could act like a mensch — or not. Inside he is still an angry teenage twerp, but given his power-broker status he can either (wrongly) accuse the brothers of being spies or warmly welcome them. What do you think he does? He decides to hide his identity, and although it looks like it might be pay-back time, maybe he is just attempting to measure if and how the brothers have changed.. He imprisons his brothers — just like he was imprisoned because of what they did to him (chapter 42 verses 8-17).

After 3 days, Yosef gives them an ultimatum, using information that he presumably got from his interrogation of them, but that he really already knew. He instructs them to return home with rations, but they must return with their youngest brother (Benjamin); in the meantime, Yosef will keep another brother, Simeon, in prison, as a ransom. The brothers confer; they talk about selling him off so long ago. They conduct this conversation in front of Yosef, who, of course, understands every word, unbeknownst to them.

And so, heavy-hearted, the brothers return home, back to their old father, Yakov/Jacob, in Cana’an, only to find another horrible surprise: When each brother opens his sacks of grain, he sees the money that he thought he had paid for the rations. (Yosef had instructed his servants to replace the coins so it would appear as if the brothers stole the grain.) Oy Oy Oy!! Now what??? There is a trick turn behind every action in this parasha.

How will it all end? What other tricks does Yosef have up his elegant Egyptian sleeve? And what are all these shenanigans about? To see if the brothers have really repented from their dirty deeds? To enjoy a little sweet revenge? To show the brothers that his teenage dreams had come true after all? All of the above? Or none of it?

This parasha gives us insights into the way this family works or doesn’t….Old Yakov still thinks everything bad that happens in the world is always centered on him (Genesis chapter 42 verse 36). Yosef doesn’t look so great either — he keeps losing control as he manipulates his brothers (Genesis chapter 43 verses 30-34). He keeps breaking down in tears privately, but dealing deceitfully with his brothers in his public persona. It won’t be until next week that the brothers find out what we (the loyal readers) already know — that this great and powerful Egyptian vizier is none other than their brother, their father’s favorite son, Yosef.

TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why didn’t Yosef ever “write home” in the 20 years he was in a powerful position in Egypt?
  2. How did Yosef’s assimilation affect his behavior towards his brothers, if at all?