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Congregation Or Shalom
835 Darby Paoli Road
Berwyn, PA 19312
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Dvar July 5 2019 and July 6 2019 Korach

Dvar: Friday July 5th

Shabbat Shalom. I hope everyone had a wonderful 4th of July celebrating our country.

I am so honored to be back on the bimah, here at Or Shalom. I have been looking forward to this shabbat for a long time, ever since I led a kabbalat Shabbat and maariv service for the community back in the early part of April. I am so thankful to everyone who came to services that night and tefillah on Saturday morning later in the month of April. And I thank you all for being here again tonight. I hope over the next few months, as I settle in, we get to know one another better. I look forward to learning with one another and thriving as a community which is welcoming and supportive.

This week’s parsha is Korach. As in last week’s parsha: shlach l’cha (the parsha about the 12 spies, 10 of which rebelled), we have another instance of rebellion in Parshat Korach. Korach, along with the sons of Eliav and Reuven as well as 250 other chieftains of the community, approach Moses and challenge his leadership. They angrily state “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation.” Korach angrily confronts Moses because Korach wants power and more leadership responsibility, he wants to be the chosen leader. He assumes Moses isn’t doing his job the way he should, that he puts himself and his family first before the community. In essence he accuses Moses of nepotism and elitism.

Moses goes to G-d and asks for help. G-d tells Moses to bring Korach and his followers to the tent of meeting for a ritual which will demonstrate who is the chosen leader. Unbeknownst to Korach and the community, Moses intercedes for the people, who initially after hearing of the rebellion, G-d wants to kill them all. Moses succeeds in sparing G-d’s wrath towards the people, but not towards Korach and his followers.

Korach not only comes to Moses in anger but he assumes the worst. This parsha is not the first time Moses intercedes for the people, nor the last. Almost every time Moses approaches G-d he asks questions that have to do with the people: how to help them, how to provide for them, how and where to lead them. Korach and his rebels have never been privy to the intense conversations between Moses and G-d. They have never witnessed the pleading Moses does on behalf of the people, knowing that they did wrong, but still defending them and advocating for their lives. In other words, much of Moses’ leadership is done “behind the scenes.” And therefore, it is easy to judge, criticize, or accuse Moses of neglecting the people because Korach and his followers assume the worst in Moses because they aren’t privy to his leadership.

Growing up I feared transition. During these moments I would challenge just as Korach did, out of anger and assumptions. I experienced this time and time again growing up until my mid-20s when I began my work at a Holocaust Center in Seattle. Working with survivors they reminded me that most people have good intentions, not bad, and this needs to be remembered in times transition when we quickly slide into defense mechanisms. This lesson was very impactful for me because I saw that even people who experienced the worst imaginable still viewed people as having good intentions. In other words, they were saying, don’t do what Korach did.

We all can be korach. Especially in times of the unknown. Our natural defense mechanism is to protect ourselves by assuming the worst. But this doesn’t serve us. Like I learned as a young 20-something year old. The story of Korach doesn’t teach us not to challenge others but that there are healthy ways in which to challenge. Here are three reminders based on what Korach should have done.

  1. Assume people’s intentions are good. Like Korach, how many times do we jump to conclusions about someone’s work because we weren’t witness to the process? How many times do we assume things would be better if we were only part of the work or even more so dictated how the work should be done? Start from a place of assuming people want to do good, have good intentions, and want to do their jobs and roles well. 
  2. Approach from a place of curiosity not a place driven by intense emotion. Korach comes to Moses angry and challenges him. He brings a mob of 250+ people behind him, all angry themselves. This, many times, only escalates the situation. Therefore, let us move from assuming to fact gathering. If someone makes a decision you don’t agree with, ask them why and how they made it. By approaching people, especially people in leadership positions with curiosity our assumptions are usually debunked and we come to learn the reality behind the decision.
  3. Acknowledge the blessings and agency you possess. Korach has power and leadership in the community. Korach and the 250 chieftains are sages with an active role in contributing to the overall leadership of the community. They don’t possess direct access to G-d but they are doing G-d’s work, helping to lead the community from a place of faith and holiness. By acknowledging the agency we do possess and the blessings we are given daily we can start to see others as partners and not as threats. The ultimate goal is to work together not to fight for the top spot or who is right. 

I am so thankful I began to see my tendencies to act like Korach in my mid-twenties. This awareness has helped me be a better person, partner and Rabbi. And sometimes Korach’s voice still comes out loud, it’s a process. 

I imagine amidst this transition in our community, the voice of Korach may be coming out amidst us because the unknown is scary and uncomfortable. They say that the parsha comes along and reveals a lesson just when most relevant for our lives. Let us learn from Korach and continue to practice cultivating an assumption of good intentions, approaching one another from a place of calm and acknowledging the unique place each of us is blessed to be within this community.  


Saturday: July 6th

Disagreement for the sake of heaven

Every year in rabbinical school we had a Yom Limmud, a day of study as a community. In my senior year of school we focused our day long learning on mental health and the role of the rabbi. The city of Philadelphia has a department (really one person I think) within its health and human services department who serves as a liaison between clergy and mental health organizations. We asked her to join us so that we could begin our day with a basic understanding of mental health. She was a non-Jewish woman who had some contact with the Jewish community but never been immersed. As she was presenting, a room full of rabbis in training, did what they learned from the culture in which they were raised. They rose their hands, blurted out questions, and challenged the information. Over time, the speaker shut down. Only afterwards, someone spoke to the speaker and asked about her experience. She shared that she really struggled and felt confronted. The community learned two things: not all are used to the disagreement and questioning that is embedded in us as Jews and two: there is productive disagreement and there is unproductive disagreement, mahloket l’shem shamayim or mahloket ein l’shem shamayim.

In Pirkei Avot, Mishnah 5:17

משנה אבות ה׳:י״ז

(יז) כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:

Pirkei Avot 5:17

(17) Every argument that is [for the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not [for the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What [is an example of an argument for the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What [is an example of an argument not for the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his followers.

Pirkei Avot uses the story of Korach to introduce us to the notion of argument for the sake of heaven’s name and argument not for the sake of heaven’s name. Hillel and Shammai, as referenced in Pirkei Avot, are two of the most famous sages in Jewish history who lived during the period of the tannaim (the ones who study and hand down the tradition of their teachers). The Tannaim predate the writing of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Hillel and Shammai were two houses of study who many times disagreed with one another. One of their most famous disagreements was how to light the hanukkiah, light one more candle each night (Hillel) or light all candles and blow out one every night (Shammai). The Mishnah and Talmud are riddled with arguments between the houses. The debates between the houses were heated and sometimes even violent but at the end of the day their disagreements were considered in the sake of heaven’s name.

Unlike the arguments of Hillel and Shammai, the story of Korach teaches us about disagreement which is not for the sake of heaven’s name. Rabbi Bartenuera (a 15th century Italian rabbi who is most known for his commentary on the mishnah) writes about the difference between the arguments of Hillel and Shammai and Korach: “Every controversy that is in the name of Heaven, the end thereof will endure.” (quoting Mishnah)…

The controversy which is for the sake of Heaven, the purpose and aim is to arrive at the truth, and this continues to endure, as they said that ‘from a disagreement the truth will be revealed,’ as was revealed in the disputes between Hillel and Shammai – that the law was like the school of Hillel. And a controversy which is not for the sake of Heaven, its purpose is to achieve power and the love of victory, and its end will not endure, as we find in the dispute of Korach and his band, whose aim and end-goal was a lust for honor and power–and their end was the opposite.”

Therefore, Bartenuera teaches that the difference between appropriate disagreement and inappropriate disagreement are the intentions of the ones disagreeing. Are they disagreeing for the sake of truth and peace (as with Hillel and Shammai), or are they disagreeing because they seek power and fame (like Korach)?

By using this elaboration on the difference between disagreement l’shem shamayim or ein l’shem shmayim we are provided with guideposts when we disagree or argue. Am I disagreeing/ arguing for the sake of peace and to help others or am I disagreeing because I want power or to be in the limelight, or even, I just want to be right! Disagreement driven by helping others is noble, disagreement for selfish reasons is unproductive.

And commentary on constructive conflict as inspired by studying this week’s Torah portion continues to this day. Hillel International started a program a few years ago called “Ask Big Questions”. They help college students explore values, ethics, and relationships with others by using teachings from our tradition. They take the tool of makloket l’shem shamayim to create a functional tool to insure rich conversation despite difficult disagreement. It’s called ten strategies for constructive conflict and it comes in poster size! I’m happy to share with those who are interested.

Returning to the story of my rabbinical school days and our guest’s encounter with our culture of disagreement. I believe many questions, challenges and disagreements in response to her presentation were a mahloket l’shem shamayim. But some moved from l’shem shamayim to e’in l’shem shamayim. We could have avoided makloket ein l’shem shamayim by remembering our tradition encourages disagreement but it also teaches us there is a productive way in which to do it. May we all, when we disagree with one another, remind ourselves and each other of mahloket l’shem shamayim so we maintain peace within this holy community.