B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

A traditional breakfast of biscuits and grits fueled our “home on wheels” (newly nicknamed Stella Blue by the kids) to reach our weekend destination.  My friend’s cabin in Calico Rock, AR, is deep in the woods and literally 10 miles down a narrow dirt road. With the creek in his backyard and fresh trout for dinner, rest, relaxation and re-jew-venation came easily.  The cabin was even on Reb Lane (really, what are the chances of finding a weekend address like that).  Traversing a warm and flat Kansas freeway now, we’re collectively acknowledging that “there’s no place like home.”  After Ft. Collins, CO, we”ll travel to find awe and inspiration in Arches NP.  Don’t worry, our KOA campground has confirmed having a pool to help cool us down from the high desert heat.

Sending a Shabbat shalom from the Sunflower State,
Rabbi Mark and the mishpacha

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Parsha Pinchas: Who Gets to Judge?

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Andrew Nusbaum.


This week we see the conclusion of the story of Pinchas. Before we get into the narrative, it’s interesting to note that there are only five parshiyot that are named after Biblical characters: Noah, Yitro, Korah, Balak, and finally, Pinchas. Why? What is special about these characters, three non-Jews and two Jews, three heroes and two quasi-villains? One connection could be that all of these characters manage to surprise us: Noah seems holy but gets drunk, Jethro goes from a pagan outsider to a loyal ally (and in-law), Korah is from “the right family” but goes astray, Balak tries to curse the Jewish people but ends up blessing them instead, and finally we have Pinchas. Pinchas, like Korah, is another relative of Moses, who also engages in some questionable behavior and goes against the status quo. The difference is that, unlike Korah, the tradition sees Pinchas as a hero—which, as we shall see, makes things a little tricky for us.

Let’s step back and review the story thus far: the Hebrews have made camp in Shittim and have started committing both idol worship and harlotry with the local Moabites. We are told that this caused God’s anger to flare against the Hebrews in the form of a plague, killing 24,000. God told Moses that the only way to stop the plague would be to execute the wayward Hebrews. The text does not give us insight into Moses’ psychology at this moment, but we do see him start to gather the leaders to implement God’s command. Before he can begin, however, something surprising happens: a prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri son of Salu, takes a Midianite princess, Cozbi, into his tent where they have a romantic liaison. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, outraged, grabs his spear and skewers the two, killing them. Surprisingly, the Torah offers no editorial commentary to this, simply noting, “the plague ceased from the children of Israel.” Imagine hearing this story for the first time, and sitting in anticipation to hear the conclusion. What do you suppose might happen next?

Whatever your guess, chances are you would be surprised by the end of the story. When our parsha opens to complete the cliff-hanger, rather than being punished, Pinchas is actually congratulated by name! God announces that Pinchas has turned His anger away by “zealously avenging me” and rewards him with a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace, as well as the “eternal priesthood”.

Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. The man who just turned a couple into a human pincushion has now been granted a special covenant of peace? What’s going on here?

The dominant narrative in the tradition has argued, following the plain meaning of the text, that Pinchas is rewarded because he is “zealous” for God—note that Zimri and Cozbi’s liaison takes place immediately after God’s order to execute the wayward Hebrews. In Balak, we read that the whole congregation was in front of the Tabernacle, weeping—over the plague, or possibly over the order to kill their own people. Pinchas, the rabbis imagine, was so furious, so outraged, at Zimri’s flagrant show of chutzpah and insensitivity—to God and to the people—that he was overcome by zealotry and took the law into his own hands. Many of the rabbis hold Pinchas up as a positive role model, a man who defended God when no one else would. There is even an expression in the Talmud that hypocrisy is defined as “one who acts like Zimri and expects the reward of Pinchas.”

And yet… Not everyone seems so sure that Pinchas was truly in the right. The Jerusalem Talmud says Pinchas “acted against the will of the sages,” and would have been excommunicated from the people if not for God’s intervention. Several rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud emphasize that if anyone asks for permission to emulate Pinchas, “we do not instruct him to do so.” Additionally, they point out that if Zimri had stopped making love to Cozbi and was then killed by Pinchas, that Pinchas would have received the death penalty as a murderer. (Or, alternately, if Zimri had managed to kill Pinchas it would have been a case of justifiable self-defense.) The rabbis also imagine the community criticizing Pinchas for killing a tribal prince for fooling around with a Midianite when he himself was descended from Jethro—even as they defend him, they project discontent among his peers! Others interpret the narrative break between Parsha Balak and Parsha Pinchas as an indicator of a character flaw on Pinchas’ part—the text is not complete because somehow Pinchas is incomplete.

Some rabbis, puzzled by the story, turn to Zimri, to try to unpack his motivations. One midrash imagines that Zimri was not acting out of personal lust, but rather out of a desire to protect his tribe: seeing that Moses was putting men to death for mixed relationships, the men of Shimon asked Zimri to do something, which prompted him to take Cozbi and bring her to Moses, asking if she was permitted or forbidden—and noting, “if you say that she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry your Midnianite wife?” In this view, Zimri’s act could be seen as a form of political theater, meant to challenge Moses’ right to punish the Hebrews. Though the rabbis teach that Zipporah converted, the fact that this argument is even recorded as part of the tradition stands as a powerful critique, echoing Korah’s earlier statement about the whole people being holy. A mystical view popularized by the Ari (R. Isaac Luria) imagines Zimri and Cozbi as reincarnations of Shechem and Dina, with their union actually being intended by God as a way of achieving a spiritual purification—they were, literally, soulmates. This fascinating argument turns the whole narrative on its head, turning: Pinchas, not Zimri, into the one who went against God’s will!

Despite these alternate theories about Zimri, however, the main focus remains on Pinchas. The rabbis employ several strategies to try to justify his behavior. One is by listing various miracles that God provided for Pinchas, suggesting divine approval. Another is to cite God’s repeated identification of Pinchas as Aaron’s grandson, establishing his positive family and personality traits. Finally, the rabbis spend a great deal of time discussing the text’s use of the term “zealot.”

Rashi tells us that the word for zealot, kanai, comes from a root word meaning jealousy. He argues that someone who is zealous for God goes beyond their intellect to a level of pure instinct—responding with violence to any perceived desecration of God’s name or reputation. Claiming an oral tradition from Sinai, the Talmud lists three actions to which a zealot may respond by killing the perpetrator: stealing holy utensils for the Temple, cursing God through idolatry, or having sexual relations with an idolatrous woman. In all three cases, commentators note, the offending act is seen as standing between the Hebrews and God. Interestingly enough, however, the rabbis add that there is no obligation to be a zealot (classifying it as “a law that is not instructed”), and that one’s motives must be of the highest level in order to qualify as a zealot—the moment one ceases to be pure (or asks permission), one’s zealotry has become mere murder, and one is liable for the death penalty.

We actually have several groups in Jewish history who have called themselves zealots—not only the Zealots of Jerusalem who contributed to the city’s downfall at the hands of the Romans, but also Matityahu, the first leader of the Maccabees, who cried, “Whoever is zealous for the Lord, follow me!” The tradition seems unable to decide whether being a zealot is actually a good thing or not.

There is one last zealot who is at least a little more familiar: Elijah. After Elijah triumphs over the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, he leads the Hebrews in slaughtering them. On the run from Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah flees to Mount Horeb. There, God asks him why he has come and he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:14). Not only does this section of Elijah’s story become chosen as the haftarah for this Parsha; the Talmud explicitly connects the two men through midrash, saying that Elijah was actually Pinchas, who, thanks to his Brit Shalom, managed to live to the ripe age of 600. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that while God rewards both men for their zealousness, he also “gently rebukes” them.

Remember, on the mountain, Elijah is shown a whirlwind, earthquake and fire by God, but sees that he is not present in any of these—he only encounters God in “a still, small voice,” a whisper. Rabbi Sacks comments that after this, God again asks Elijah why he has come to Horeb—and Elijah gives the same answer as before, citing his zealous acts. A midrash teaches that in response to this, God got exasperated at Elijah, telling him, “Israel cannot withstand your zealotry. You were zealous at Shittim [as Pinchas] and now you were zealous at Mount Carmel. You spilled blood there and you spilled blood here, in your zeal for God. That is a noble deed, but Israel cannot survive such zeal.” According to Rabbi Sacks, God was trying to show Elijah that “He is not to be found in violent confrontation, but in gentleness.” Elijah’s failure to understand this, we are told, leads directly to him being replaced by Elisha.

Similarly, Rabbi Sacks observes that by definition, Pinchas’ covenant of peace should preclude him from ever needing to act as a zealot again. To some commentators, the function of the Brit Shalom is to change his character, to steer him towards a gentler path. Even the very word, shalom, is noteworthy—if the word is written with a vav, it reads shalom (peace), without it, it reads shalem (whole). Fascinatingly, in the Hebrew text, the shalom that Pinchas receives is written with a broken vav—neither fully peace nor fully whole! The rabbis say that the vav is left broken precisely to show that though Pinchas’ act may have been justifiable, true shalom cannot come through violence. Pinchas’ deed may have been appropriate for his particular circumstance (or not) but it seems understood that it cannot become an example for the masses.

Much of what makes Parsha Pinchas so challenging is that no one’s motivations are clear, and perhaps this is a key to understanding one of its possible lessons: at times we all judge one another, deciding that someone has done something inappropriate, or incorrectly, or simply differently from us. That is only natural, and to a degree, necessary, in the context of a community or society. However, as our Parsha shows us, there must also be a balance, an awareness that we may not always have all the facts or all the answers—even when it comes to ourselves or our own motivations or instincts.

In our modern times, zealotry, fundamentalism, and violence all carry very negative connotations, and with good reason, so at the end of the day, what do we do with this Parsha which contains all three? Perhaps it is best if we see it as a challenge to our intellectual honesty: we have inherited a tradition of both thought and action, but there are times in life where there is no time to think and action is required. Whatever his faults, at the moment of truth, in the midst of plague, surrounded by thousands of elders who presumably knew the law just as well as him, Pinchas managed to act—despite the risks, perhaps even despite doubt. As potentially dangerous as zealotry is, as much as our modern sensibilities may recoil from it, the tradition seems to be saying (even as it tries to legislate it away) that we must, at our core, also have some respect for it. Think of Moses, back in Egypt. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. What does he do? He kills the guard. We read of neither fanfare nor recrimination, but in truth, Moses’ act of violence is not so different from Pinchas’—and yet much less ink and angst have been spent analyzing this killing than the ones in our Parsha. So perhaps part of the lesson is that we must be very, very, careful with zealotry, but still acknowledge its potential to exist in some legitimate form, if only as a minor exception.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk makes a very valuable point in analyzing Pinchas’ story—he notes that this Parsha is also the one in which Moses asks God to help him name a successor. Given how much praise Pinchas’ zealotry receives, one might think that he would be appointed to succeed Moses rather than Joshua. However, this never happens. Why? The Kotzker’s answer is simple: a zealot cannot be a leader, because leadership requires patience, thought, and respect for the rule of law, all things that by definition, a zealot lacks. The tradition may not condemn zealotry as criminal, but it certainly seems to view it as precarious. In the fallible and imperfect world we inhabit, occasionally zealotry may be a necessary evil, but at our tradition’s core, it is not the path we are taught to follow.











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Shabbat Symposium: The Crypto-Jewish Experience

Save The Date: July 30 Symposium at B’nai Emunah. Presenter: Andrew Nusbaum

Jews were forced to hide their faith and practices at multiple times and places throughout history. Together we will explore the history, culture and strategies of Crypto-Jews in Spain and Portugal, Mexico and South America, and Iran.


Crypto-Jewish man in Mashadd, Iran


Crytpo-Jewish tombstone in Mexico

We will start around 1:00 pm following kiddush and go for about an hour, leaving time for any questions.

Do *you* have a topic you’d like to learn about or teach to others? Get in touch and let us know!

B’nai Emunah believes all members of the community have something to teach each other. One way of putting this into practice is through our Shabbat Symposium program, a rotating adult education opportunity happening every fourth Saturday following morning services. Each class is led by a knowledgeable community volunteer on a topic of their choice. From holidays to history to religious studies, Shabbat Symposium is a fun chance to learn something new from fellow CBE members. Join us for engaged learning and enthusiastic discussion!

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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

4,825 miles and going strong!  After a full day in DC and a visit to “The House,” our family relaxed for Shabbat in Baltimore (with a quick pre-Shabbat stop by the kids’ favorite tv show bakery).  We started this week by reconnecting with family and close friends in Philadelphia for a few days.  After some quality time, we then drove to Shenandoah National Park to camp and hike in the awe inspiring and beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Getting back on the road, we’re on the way now to Arkansas to visit a friend in his remote cabin in the Ozarks to refresh and relax for Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom from the road,
Rabbi Mark and the mishpacha

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Parsha Balak: Role Reversal

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Rabbi David Lavine.

Today’s Parsha, Balak, is a bit different than those around it. It is named after a bad guy rather than a good guy. It is literary in its style. It is full of allegory, and full of irony. Most of it takes place not from the perspective of the Jews, but from that of the other people we encounter. One of our most well-known prayers we begin the day with, Mah Tovu, comes out of the mouth of someone sent to curse us. It comes in the run-up to finally approaching the promised land, yet even in the home stretch it takes a breath. It is, in short, a great parsha to give a drash on. And to say nothing of my son’s observation that this is the parsha with characters with many names beginning with B – so says my son Benjamin with delight.

There are two parts to parsha Balak: the curse ordered by an evil ruler that becomes a blessing once delivered, and the shame of our people in forgetting ourselves and our G-d- given rules when among the Moabite people, leading to plague and then to cure.

Part one. A local ruler, Balak, heard that the Jews were approaching, and had laid waste to everyone who had opposed them. Frightened, he dispatched a famed sorcerer, Baalam, to go to the Jewish people to curse them. Riding his donkey on the way there, an angel appears to the donkey, blocking the way. When the donkey stops, Baalam strikes the donkey, leading the donkey,who is granted a voice, to object to being beaten given the donkey’s many years of faithful service to Baalam, leading Baalam to threaten to kill the donkey if he only had a sword. Only then did the angel appear also to Baalam, so that Baalam could understand why the donkey stopped, and could process how his mission to curse the Jewish people was doomed to fail. Even though Baalam told Balak that he would be restricted in his spell over the Jewish people to the words given to him to speak by G-d, Balak nevertheless sent him, three times, to curse the Jewish people. Instead, three times Baalam took on the role of a prophet and blessed the Jewish people, with a beautiful foretelling of how good – Mah Tovu – things will be when we are all assembled together, in peace,in the presence of the Messiah.

Did you catch the role reversals? Take Baalam and the donkey. Baalam was the famed sorcerer.The donkey was, well, a donkey – characteristically slow, plodding, stubborn and not usually the smartest. Yet it is the donkey who turns out to be thoughtful, even eloquent when given a voice,and right. Baalam, the famed sorcerer, the seer, could not even see the angel before his donkey did, and not only could not curse the Jewish people – he did the opposite and blessed them. He no tonly blessed them — he gave them a view of their wondrous future as people chosen by G-d.

For his part, Balak thought he was going to stop the Jews in their tracks. Instead, by opposing the Jews, he ultimately empowered us. Indeed, he did not know it at the time, but Balak’s family line was destined to produce the Moabite Ruth, among the most righteous people who supported her Jewish family and took on our faith, and then, generations later, to produce King David. The same family line of Balak, Ruth and David is supposed to ultimately lead to the Messiah. Like Baalam, Balak thus had the very opposite effect on the Jewish people from what he intended – rather than weakening or destroying us, he strengthened us.

Part two. Once the Jews moved into the Moabite lands, they made themselves too comfortable,forgot the commandments, and sinned. G-d punished the Jews for their reckless behavior bysending a plague, which was cured only when Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, took it upon himselfto kill one of the prior perpetrators and the local woman he had taken to his tent.

See any role reversal here? The Jews had averted destruction time and time again over the long journey from Egypt, and claimed victories under G-d’s guidance – only after all their struggles to then revert to bad behavior and to turn their collective back on G-d and Torah. We got through the hard part, only to fail when life became easier. It took a plague to set us right again, just as it took the plagues in Egypt against our captors to free us.

A word about the haftarah, from the prophet Micah, which offers another connection to my son Benjamin, who took Micah for his middle name. Micah is known as a minor prophet, likely a contemporary of fellow prophets Hosea and Amos, and likely a disciple of Isaiah based on the similarity of their both calling for destruction and exile if the Jews are not observant. But as Isaiah was a product of Jerusalem, and preached in the urban settings there, Micah came from outside of Jerusalem, and with his fellows worked the land. He was the prophet of farmers and shepherds,and of others of little means. He is best known for his teaching of doing justice, loving kindness and mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.Today’s haftarah picks up on the Balak tale. Micah encourages us to live among other nations but not to wholly lose ourselves in them – to mingle and share, yet to retain our independence, so that we can honor our responsibility to serve as emissaries toward a better world. Unfortunately, it takes the effects of a plague inflicted on those who forgot their way in Moab to remind the Jews of their proper role.

A wise donkey, a sorcerer whose spell backfires, an evil ruler who is to become our progenitor, a plague not against our enemies but against ourselves to set us straight – it is a rich parsha indeed.Rich with lessons as we approach the promised land – and still rich with lessons for us today as we remember how our enemies can empower us, how the lowliest creatures among us can be a wise voice and catalyst in that empowerment, and how, in challenging times as much as in easier ones,we are duty-bound to remember all that G-d has done for us, and to follow the Torah’s guidance in our daily lives.

Shabbat shalom.


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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

Beignets and a beautiful boat ride down the bayou (yep that’s me holding a baby gator) completed our New Orleans visit.  We enjoyed a family reunion with my Mom, brother and a gaggle of cousins, while relaxing over the weekend at the historic Grand Hotel in Point Clear, AL.  After country fried tempeh, biscuits and gravy and a stay with friends in Atlanta, we logged some more road miles to Richmond, VA.  A cool swim in the historic James river and a quick visit to the Fine Arts museum closed out our day.  Washington DC is next for a half day on Friday and then on to Baltimore by sunset for some Shabbat down time with my good friend and his family.

Wishing you a warm (and humid) Shabbat shalom from “the other coast,”

R. Mark and the mishpacha

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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

Week 2 and 2800 miles later, it’s been a great week!  We explored the coolest temps and scenes in New Mexico at the Carlsbad Caverns, relaxed with friends in Dallas over Shabbat and swam in Austin’s best swimming hole before trucking on to New Orleans.  Filling up our souls with the music of the street and our tummies with po’ boy sandwiches and pralines, next stop is Mobile, AL, to reunite with much of my Southern family over the weekend.

As they say down here, Shabbat shalom y’all,

Rabbi Mark and the mishpacha

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Parsha Korah and the Need for Humility

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Andrew Nusbaum.

This week we read of Korah’s famous rebellion against his cousin Moses. Korah is often seen as an archetype of demagoguery, and the rabbis of the Talmud delight in expanding on his punishments (one account says he was swallowed down to She’ol and was doomed to spend eternity repeating, “Moses was right! The Torah is Truth!”), or explaining just what was so terrible about his revolt. To me, that tradition has so emphatically cast Korah to the margins suggests that there was something threatening about his story. Indeed, the heart of the rebellion seems to be a question with very modern echoes: by what authority do Moses and Aaron have the right to be leaders of the Hebrews?

At first glance, the answer to this question seems obvious: Moses and Aaron’s authority comes from God, end of story, case closed. However Korah is not satisfied: in a likely reference to God’s earlier command that the Hebrews are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), Korah retorts that “all the community are holy… and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3)

To many rabbinical commentators, this smacks of chutzpah, and thereby vindicates Korah’s subsequent punishment. Korah, we are told, is not sincere in his protests—he is not actually concerned about the larger argument that all of Israel is holy or in reimagining the priestly/clan structure along more communal divisions of power. Rather, they argue that Korah was motivated by a desire for personal power. Not only that, Korah not only challenged political authority but also spiritual authority—questioning Moses’ right to lead the people, as well as Aaron’s right to serve as High Priest and offer sacrifices to God. Rashi imagines a dialogue between Moses and his cousin which focuses on the fact that God, not Moses, created the world with inherent boundaries: just as day is divided from night, so too there are divisions between the Jewish people, by caste and by position. The Medieval Sefer Ha-Chinuch agrees, pointing out that two mitzvot contained in Parsha Korah are that Kohanim and Levites are not to do each other’s work; it goes so far as to argue that Levites who did the work of a Kohen (or did work assigned to another Levite) might be struck down by God! The argument seems to be that Aaron’s position (and those of subsequent generations) was decided and conferred by God, not his brother, and that by rebelling against the “divine order,” Korah threatens the entire system the Jewish people (and by association, God) are using to create order from chaos.

Some may find this argument compelling, and depending on your perspective, there is much to support it. After all, we are told repeatedly throughout the Torah that Moses and Aaron’s roles were ordained by God—with little mention of Korah or his followers. And there is something very comforting about the image of a world created with innate boundaries and roles for its inhabitants. However this argument, to me at least, falls a bit flat. I have always been troubled by the lack of engagement with Korah’s main point, one increasingly resonant today. If indeed, as we claim Judaism teaches, all people are holy, is there not an element of contradiction in the concept of having specific people be leaders and others not?

The answer, I believe, has to do with further exploring exactly what leadership, as well as holiness, means.

Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) argued that Judaism has had a long-running debate as to whether holiness was acquired or intrinsic: do webecome holy by following divine instruction or are we inherently holy by being made by God, in God’s image? Leibowitz convincingly claimed that both strains have authentic roots in our tradition, but also eloquently illustrated that the challenge of the second approach is its potential for self-satisfaction, and thus inertia: if I become overly convinced in my inherent holiness, I may decide that no further growth is needed. Similarly, I may become so satisfied with the accomplishments or merits of my specific group that I lose sight of the personal work that I am required to do in order to be a good person. As Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) wrote, “being holy is more than reciting a slogan or using simplistic catchphrases.”

This is not to say that there are not pitfalls in the first approach, either: it is certainly possible to become equally hyper-focused on the need to acquire holiness through mitzvot (and, by extension, to view oneself or others as deficient if they do not practice the way you do, or feel that they should). However in the end Leibowitz seems to be more comfortable with a Judaism that views holiness as a process or a goal, rather than starting with the view that it is already a fait-accompli.

For all the invective thrown Korah’s way, there are a few voices in the tradition that defend him. The Mei Ha-Shiloach and the Netziv, two giants from the Hasidic and Yeshiva streams respectively, see some merit in Korah. The Mei Ha-Shiloach (R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854), a Hasidic iconoclast who was a peer and close follower of the Kotzker Rebbe, greatly admired Korah, even commenting that some of his teachers had referred to him as “Grandfather Korah.” The Mei Ha-Shiloach said that Korah was fundamentally correct in his point about the entire people being holy, and that his only error was in not recognizing that the people would not be ready for such a utopian equality until the days of the Messiah. Rather than focusing on the personality of Korah, the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Berlin, 1816-1893), a famous leader of the Volozhin Yeshiva, turned his attention to the understated footnote to the Korah story: after Korah and his followers are killed, the parsha tells us that God directed Moses to take their fire pans and hammer them into plating for the altar. Why? The text says, “once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred.” (Num. 17:3) Unlike other commentators who say that anything used for worship is automatically made sacred, or that this is meant to be a warning to other would-be challengers to Moses’, Aaron’s or God’s authority, the Netziv sees this as a clue to Korah and his followers’ true intentions: they were not power-hungry cynics or rebels, but men with a sincere desire to serve God, who chafed at what (to them) may have seemed like unnecessary or unjustified intermediaries.

While most of the tradition’s backing of Moses over Korah may seem like a simple case of history being written by the victors, it may also illustrate some of the qualities the Torah is suggesting are important in leadership. When Moses is confronted by his cousin, his first reaction is not to become angry or argue, but to “fall on his face,” interpreted as consulting with God for guidance. He then tries to reason with his cousin, as well as attempts to meet separately with the other leaders of the rebellion. When these appeals are rejected, rather than muster his followers to attack, as in the Golden Calf, or castigate them as he did with the spies, Moses tries something counter-intuitive: he gives Korah what he wants.

Remember, Korah’s claim, at least in part, is that he is as qualified to offer sacrifices as Aaron. This is quite a bold claim given that just a few chapters ago, the entire people witnessed the death of Nadav and Abihu for offering a non-sanctioned sacrifice—and these were Aaron’s own sons, Kohanim who theoretically would have potentially been in line to become future high priests! And what does Moses do? In an early echo of Elijah’s duel with the priests of Baal, he essentially challenges Korah to a sacrifice contest with Aaron—a contest he loses.

Some have argued that Moses sets Korah up, knowing that his sacrifice will not be accepted and that it will end in death—something the Torah suggests by having Moses demand in advance that God only punish Korah’s followers, and not the entire community. However the other way to look at it is that, after all other options have been exhausted, Moses effectively steps aside and simply lets the events happen. Rather than fight or argue, he leaves the decision up to God. One important quality of being a leader is knowing when to fight, and when to step aside and let things take their course. Another quality is knowing how to fight. Just as the rabbis criticize Korah for his ridicule of Moses, they praise Moses for keeping his temper. The Talmud says that one of the things the world depends on is a person restraining themselves during a dispute. What a concept compared to our current discourse!

The rabbis of the Talmud use the story of Korah attacking Moses as a classic example of an argument “not for the sake of Heaven,” contrasting it with Hillel and Shammai, who strongly disagreed with each other but still recognized that their debates were happening within a productive context of respect. Hillel and Shammai were opponents, but not enemies. Their goal was to better understand the word of God and his wishes for how the Jewish people should live. Korah, the rabbis argue, was fighting for a dictatorship at best and total anarchy at worst. Whether we agree with this interpretation, there is certainly no question that issues of what respectful debate looks like seem incredibly timely to us today.

Regardless of one’s political positions, it is clear that we are living in a time where the concept of respectful (much less productive) debate seems not only passé, but almost quaint. Regardless of whether one focuses on the world stage, national politics, local news, or intra-Jewish debates, the trend seems to be overwhelmingly stacked towards shrillness, venom and negativity. Rather than argue for why a position is right or explaining why an argument is factually correct, we see talking heads taking potshots at each other. To paraphrase Leibowitz, demagoguery did not die with the sons of Korah.

The seventh Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), argued that Korah’s primary problem was envy: he did not like the natural hierarchy that God had created. But, the rebbe argued, the fact that Korah did not like his place on the spiritual ladder did not change the fact that the ladder existed, anymore than night and day exist. The Mei Ha-Shiloach, on the other hand, saw Korah as anticipating the Messianic age when all righteous people will dance in a circle, pointing to God in the center and rejoicing. Is there any way to reconcile these positions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (b. 1948) thinks so: in his view, the fundamental mistake of Korah was not envy, nor timing, but in perception. Korah thought Moses was raising himself above the people, but Rabbi Sacks argues that Moses was not interested in glory or power —merely service. Rather than being ambitious, we are repeatedly told of Moses’ humility. He is not described as a leader, but as a servant of the Lord. Judaism, Sacks argues, offers a model of leadership that focuses on tasks, not position. Per this definition, a priest or a prophet is not seen as above someone else, merely someone with a different role to play. Everyone is holy, but not everyone can necessarily be a leader—at least, not a good one.

These days, many of us do not believe that our leaders are appointed for us by God, ironically causing one element of Korah’s argument to come true. Today, there is nothing stopping anyone from becoming a leader, if they are willing to put in the work and make their case, whether in the realm of politics, entertainment or Torah. Modern democracy and the information age have made authority accessible to any who wish to claim it; all that is needed are followers. And this potential for anyone to be heard offers a final, important lesson for us: we are only as righteous, as humble, or as holy as we demand our leaders be. It is up to our leaders to put their best selves forward, and for us to choose wisely. As the old line says, “We get the leaders we deserve”—and if we can’t find the ones we want, perhaps we need to become them.










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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

With 939 miles under our belt (but who’s counting), we’re on our way to Carlsbad Caverns, NM.  We enjoyed a comfy stay with friends in L.A. and some tasty kosher treats in the Pico Robertson neighborhood before our journey to Sedona, AZ.  After an eve in a KOA yurt, we headed to a top notch swimming hole in Sedona.  Now just 500 miles to go before resting and exploring the Carlsbad Caverns.  Then, we’re on to friends in Dallas for a relaxing Shabbat.
Regards from the road and Shabbat shalom,
R. Mark

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B’nai Emunah proudly represented at Limmud Bay Area!

Two weeks ago several B’nai Emunah members (including Andrew Nusbaum, the Lindauers and Rabbi Mark and his family) attended Limmud Bay Area at Sonoma State University, one of the highest-anticipated Jewish education events of the year. Highlights included learning with prominent authors Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Maggie Anton, exploring a variety of spiritual prayer experiences, and engaging in inspiring conversation with fellow Limmudniks.

On the last day of the conference, we were treated to a highly-entertaining comedy set with Canadian web performers Yid Life Crisis. Rabbi Mark and Andrew Nusbaum were lucky enough to grab a quick photo op:


You can read more about Limmud in this past week’s BEmail thanks to Martin Lindauer. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the links or come ask us about the weekend. It was a lot of fun and we hope to see more BE folks there next year!

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