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Rabbi's Weekly Message

Rabbi Wexler - Thursday, June 30

In this week’s Torah portion, Korah, his two sons, and 250 others lead a revolt against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of abusing their power. God is infuriated by this rebellion and causes the ground to open up and swallow Korah and his family alive while the remaining 250 rebels are destroyed by fire.

But let’s take a deeper look at the story. Korah argues that if each Jew is holy, why should Moses and Aaron reserve for themselves the two highest positions of authority: prophet and high priest? This seems like a fair question, so why are Korah and the 250 others punished so severely for their actions?

I think the answer to this question is found at bookend verses of the parashah. At the end of the Torah portion God tells Aaron “… avodat matanah eiten et k’hunatchem, I give your priesthood as a gift of service…” (Num. 18:7) Rashi explains the priesthood is a gift from God. Leadership therefore is a gift, something received, and thus a privilege. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th cent. Germany) adds: the essence of the priesthood is to serve by giving of oneself to others. Leadership means giving.

Now the problem of Korah’s behavior becomes crystal clear. The opening words of the parashah, “Vayikach korach, and Korach took…” (Num. 16:1) reveal Korah’s essential nature. He’s a taker, not a giver. Korah is arrogant while Moses is humble (Num. 12:3) His sense of entitlement and his longing for power are his downfall.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a 20th century master in mussar, argues that every human being faces a fundamental choice, whether to be a giver (notein) or a taker (noteil). “When the Almighty created human beings,” R. Dessler writes, “God made them capable of both giving and taking.” To be created in the image of God is to have the capacity to imitate God’s own generosity; in giving we become like God, the Ultimate Giver. According to Rabbi Dessler, all of our character traits and actions derive from this fundamental choice of orientation – the decision to be givers or takers.

I have been thinking a lot about this theme of giving vs. taking this week. We live in a time when many people, including many leaders in our country have become takers rather than givers. Most recently we saw the Supreme Court take bodily autonomy out of the hands of women, overturning the nearly fifty-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed the right to abortion in the United States. As I said this past Shabbat in shul, I am angry that we live in a country that seems to be saying that it cares more about guns and power than people’s bodies and children’s lives. I am disappointed that despite time moving forward, we seem to be taking steps backwards. I am worried that our world is becoming a place where our daughters will have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers. Most of all, I am heartbroken for people around our country who just lost the fundamental right to make informed decisions about their own bodies. I am heartbroken that we may now be destined to learn the painful lessons of a time before Roe was made the law of the land. And finally, I am saddened by the lack of nuance in the considerations and ruling. Like Korah, when we become takers, it is all-too easy to lose track of nuance and the ability to give voice to such nuance as well as opinions and feelings other than our own.

Vayikah Korah… Interestingly, the text never tells us just what Korah took in launching his revolt, but perhaps what Korah took is beside the point. The Torah wants us to understand something about what Korah is: a taker. And the Torah wants us in turn to learn from the story to be the antithesis of Korah. We are instructed to be givers. Judaism insists that we strive to be generous and thoughtful. At a time when so many people feel like they have had so much taken away from them. May we be a kingdom of priests and may we see ourselves as having been given the gift of being asked to become givers.

A Guide for Virtual Shabbat and Holiday Services

“The Shabbat services that we offer virtually help keep us spiritually connected while we are physically distant. Though we normally do not use electronic devices on Shabbat, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement considers this to be a hora’at sha’ah, an extraordinary time, which allows us to make an exception to our normal observance. You can read the halakahic ruling (teshuvah) that comprehensively addresses our situation here. Even though we are using technology to gather for services on Shabbat and holidays, we still try to minimize the use of our devices in honor of Shabbat. Click here to see our guide to help with this.

A PDF version of Siddur Lev Shalem is available HERE or can be purchased at the TBS office for $54 each.

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782