This week’s Torah portion is named “Korach.” This is surprising because the rabbis – who created the system of dividing the Torah into portions and naming them – considered him a demagogue or a rabble-rouser. Yet, not only is his story preserved in our Torah, but through the way that the rabbis divided up the Torah, a Torah portion is named for him and his story gets read more often than some other sections of the Torah because the opening verses of a portion are read on weekdays also.
Why did the rabbis do this? Was it an accident?
I think that the rabbis want to remind us of how important it is to challenge even our most dearly-held assumptions. After all, Korach was willing to challenge Moshe – the man who brought God’s plagues to Egypt, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, and who brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai.
It seems to me, now that we are nearly two decades into the 21st Century, that we need to re-examine some of our most closely-held assumptions about Jewish life and what will enable Judaism to survive and thrive for the rest of this century.
For example, synagogues have always assumed that if we throw up a building and hold services at the right times, OF COURSE the Jews will come. That may have been true for a number of generations, but it may no longer be true. While Jews seem to be as spiritual today as Jews of previous generations, that does not necessarily translate into synagogue attendance.
For decades, we assumed that when Jews intermarried it was because they were leaving their Judaism behind. However, it is clear today that people who feel extremely connected to their Judaism also sometimes fall in love with non-Jews.
When I first became a rabbi, the measures of success for a synagogue were membership units and Saturday morning attendance. I’m not sure those are the right metrics today. Does it take into account everyone we reach through educational or community service programs? Does it include the people who are connected electronically?
The truth is that this kind of re-assessment is going on in society at large as well. Our assumptions about government, political parties and society as a whole are all being challenged. There are many “Korachs” demanding many answers. Will the established ways win out? Or will the challengers? No one knows.
However, there is one interesting exchange among God, Moshe and Aaron – the establishment – after Korach issued his challenge. God threatened to annihilate Korach and his followers without any kind of trial or hearing (see Num. 16:21). Moshe and Aaron begged God to be merciful and not to do it. They still cared about Korach and thought of him as a fellow member of their community even if they disagreed with him. God relented.
So, let’s all continue challenging assumptions and looking for better ways to do things. However, let’s also remember that it’s possible to do so without dehumanizing those with whom we disagree.