June 23, 2023 / 4 Tamuz 5783 Parashat Korach and Pride Shabbat

Korach is, by far, not the only rebel in our Torah.   Indeed, just a few weeks ago in Numbers 12, Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses’ leadership.  Miriam alone suffered temporary consequences but emerged healed and whole.  For Korach, it does not end well. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, this is the fourth instance of rebellion in the wilderness – following the golden calf incident, complaints about food, and the spies’ negative reportage of the land of Israel in last week’s Torah reading – and God has had enough. The earth splits open and Korach and his followers are swallowed whole into the abyss, leaving behind a giant gap in the Israelite population.  Why is this rebellion different than all other rebellions?  Our sages offer no slack for Korach.  They say that his challenge to Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership is self-serving even if his address to Moses begins with “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and יהוה is in their midst.”  It appears that here at least Korach is advocating that there should be no one leader, but rather a communal kind of rule, ala the later kibbutzim.  And, to boot, Korach, had garnered the support of 250 high-ranking Israelites, leaders of their tribes, and most eminently, Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuben.  One wonders whether such a significant number of protesters constitute legitimate civil disobedience or, conversely, as traditional commentary has dubbed the affair, makhloket lo lShem Shamayim, an argument not for the sake of Heaven, meaning, not in any way aligned with the covenant between God and Israel or actions to fulfill that covenant This covenant is focused mainly on bringing the Israelites to the Land of Israel, making them a great and holy nation, and ensuring God’s omnipotence and hegemony, with Moses as his chosen representative at this historical moment.

The action of the narrative is fast-paced and the punishment swift.  We don’t read in the text that Moses took a breath and considered what was at stake for himself and for the people. Instead of taking a deeper dive into Korach’s grievances, Moses responds with “Now that [God] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” a reaction that does not respond to Korach’s accusation and assumes a hotheaded Korah, only out for himself, what we might dub today as implicit bias.

We might also suppose that Moses’ reaction was one of a personal family dispute that had little or nothing to do with Korach’s followers in the uprising.  Korach, a first cousin to Moses and Aaron, was passed over for leadership of the Kohathite clan in favor of their cousin Elzaphan, whose ancestry ranks lower in birth order – the Kohathites having the honor of carrying the Ark of the Covenant from place to place.  If so, did Moses rightly or wrongly intuit by his knee-jerk response to Korach that the latter’s complaint does not, as it may appear, proceed from democratic or egalitarian motives, but from pettiness, jealousy, and frustrated ambition?   Even if this was Korach’s real motivation, it seems to get swept up in the text by the swelling support from influential Israelites, who are following the call to an alternative governing structure.

What might have ensued if Moses had invited Korach and his followers to the proverbial table and explored grievances and motivations?  Perhaps, we would hear that the rebels really did think that a leaderless society was optimal.  For the rabbis of the Midrash, Korach represented all that was evil in the community and all that was wrong with human character. Still, it is difficult for anyone passionate about democracy not to be stirred by Korach’s powerful message. It is almost as if our Jewish loyalties are pitted against our democratic allegiances. in every generation there are leaders who fight for the assertion that each person has intrinsic worth and that all people have equal value. And since few of us would challenge this claim, Korach’s disobedience strikes a chord within us. Yet, to be equal in worth does not mean we all have the same God-given abilities. Perhaps Korach’s flaw was that he confused equal worth with equal skills. Perhaps he misunderstood and was threatened by diversity. And Judaism is based precisely on the celebration of diversity, the importance of distinction. One can certainly be different and still be equal.

We are left dangling from the text – unrequited curiosity regarding the motivations of the uprisers, what is a legitimate protest against the status quo, and, how can we morally and justly respond to disagreement and dissatisfaction to avoid hate leading to violence, in the short run, and, in the long run,  build a society that manifests respect and dignity for every human being?  This is the main message of Pride Month and Pride Shabbat. And I could not express this message more eloquently than Laconia citizen and colleague in faith Patrick Wood, who very recently advocated to the City Council to raise a Pride flag in front of Laconia City Hall.  Patrick’s powerful voice and compassion for all humanity is a model for each of us.  Here are his words:

Tony Dungy, the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and his wife, Lauren, adopted their son, Jordan, when he was an infant. Shortly after bringing Jordan home as an infant they learned that because of a missing gene, Jordan could not feel pain, which resulted in burned fingers and hands when he took cookies out of the hot oven.  In his book, Quiet Strength, Coach Dungy described the difference Jordan has made in him – “Watching the impact of that single missing gene reminds me how intricately each of us has been designed and created.  I am continuously amazed at the wonders of God’s most complex creation – people.  The line between what we consider normal and what we consider special is so fine.  So many varied, delicate pieces contribute to the balance and beauty of the whole picture.”

Coach Dungy has, in these few words, captured the essence of what we should all strive to do – to recognize the unique and wonderful nature of each person around us and just as we try to live up to our potential, to remember that we should want everyone else to have the opportunity to do the same – to be the best they can be.

But when we forget that uniqueness, when we think everyone should be like us, or that other people should act the way we feel they should, then we tend to treat those “other” people as less important, less worthy of our time, less worthy of our respect, less worthy of our compassion.  This, my friends, is the beginning of the slide down the very slippery slope of prejudice and bigotry.

As hard as it may be for me to appreciate the special attributes of tofu or eggplant, I know that for many people, including my wife, I am the crazy one.  When I was in college, I met a young man on the sidewalk handing out material supporting Communist positions.  We talked for a while and I told him that I could not support his position but that I would always do what I could to make sure he had the freedom to express his opinions.  His views were not mine but that did not make him any less of a person nor any less entitled to the same freedoms I had.

When we talk about flying the Pride flag we are not talking about making people change who they are; instead we are talking about recognizing the fact that a person’s sexual orientation does not change the human nature of that person and that prejudice and bigotry that keeps that person from reaching their full potential should not and will not be part of the culture of the City of Laconia.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., when he was a pastor at Riverside Church in New York City, told of talking with a Vietnam veteran who told him that the Army gave him a medal for killing a man but kicked him out of the Army for loving one.  This is just one example of the prejudice that LGBTQ+ people have faced for way too long.  In the early 2000s, after September 11, 2001, the military and the US government realized it needed more people who were fluent in Arabic.  So the Defense Language Institute contracted to send hundreds of young people to intensive training to learn Arabic, at the cost of millions of dollars.  Then, in 2003, the military decided that if you were homosexual, you could not serve as a translator and almost 60 of these highly trained and competent individuals were fired and told they were no longer fit to serve in the military.  How many of those young people could have been in positions as translators that might have saved lives we shall never know.

My youngest son, Matt, a 21.5-year US Army veteran, has assured me that having gays or lesbians in the US Army did not have any negative affect while he was serving.  His Army was more concerned about soldiers doing the job for which they were trained; making sure each individual lived up to their potential.

This is what flying this flag means to me – it provides proof that we here in Laconia believe that everyone should have that opportunity to reach their full potential as a human being.

May this be God’s will – Kein yiheye rtzono.