Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Torah teaches us to speak truth to power, to challenge authority for the sake of a greater good. Contrary to so many other ancient traditions, which equated disagreement with disloyalty, and often punished it with death, both Abraham and Moses are able to successfully challenge God. Even more, they survived!
Enter Korach (cue scary music).
Korach challenged Moses for the leadership of Israel. He used language surprisingly reminiscent of democracy (an idea that would not exist for several thousand years). His words seem just on the surface, and Moses responds with humility, inviting Korach and his followers into dialogue. However, they refuse.
In the showdown which follows, God demonstrates divine support for Moses with spectacular drama, destroying Korach and his followers in a terrible and precise earthquake which miraculously leaves Moses and the rest of Israel untouched.
The classical rabbinic commentators condemn Korach, not because he challenged authority, but because he challenged authority for the wrong reason. He did not seek to replace Moses for the sake of Israel, or as the rabbis would put it, ‘for the sake of heaven.’ Instead he was motivated by greed and ego. Moses, in stark contrast, was consistently described as humble and a leader who understood his role as one of service, not self-aggrandizement.
The Korach story is among the most important in Torah, because it teaches us to refine our understanding of how to pursue justice. Leadership is a sacred responsibility and trust, and when that trust is violated, we must challenge our leaders. However, even in the Israelite community, where God visibly dwelled in the midst of the camp as a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, were those who sought leadership with cynicism and malice, those who only cared for themselves and not for the community. If this could happen there, in the presence of God, then how much the more so for us.
Yet we can model ourselves on Moses and not Korach. Let us refute lies with truth, ego with humility, hate with love, and indifference with compassion as we continue to seek our way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
That is the path of Torah.
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
In Shelach Lecha God tells Moses to send twelve scouts to the Promised Land, so that they can bring back a report. The scouts return and say that the land is rich with “milk and honey,” but ten of the twelve go on to say that it is heavily fortified by “giants” and that there is no hope for the Israelites. Joshua and Caleb are the only scouts to speak against this fear, but their urgent pleas fall on deaf ears. As a result, panic spreads through the camp and the Israelites lash out at Moses and God. In the end, God decides that the Israelites are not ready, and decrees that they shall wander in the Wilderness for forty years. All of the adults over the age of 20 (except Joshua and Caleb) will live and die in the Wilderness. Only the next generation will be able to enter the land.
Traditionally, we understand this story as being about Israel’s loss of faith. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to keep the faith, so only they ultimately merited a home in the Promised Land. However, this year, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered a wholly different approach. He notes that all twelve of the spies witnessed the plagues in Egypt, they saw parting of the Sea, and they heard the Revelation at Sinai. All twelve experienced God’s presence in the midst of the camp as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. They could not possibly have questioned their belief in God, or their experience of God’s power.
What then is the story about? Rabbi Sacks teaches that the problem is not faith but narrative, by which he means, the scouts did not understand the narrative they were part of – meaning the reality of the world around them. He noticed that while we often talk about the twelve as spies, the Torah does not call them spies at all. There are two Hebrew verbs for spying: lachpor and leragel. Neither of these terms are used in our Torah portion. Rather, the verb used to command their work is latur – and it is used twelve different times. Latur is rarely used in Biblical Hebrew. In modern Hebrew it has come to mean “to tour” – as in being a tourist. Spies and tourists are not at all similar. Tourists look for the good in the lands they visit, spies look for weaknesses.
Rabbi Sacks, in noticing this difference, understands that the problem with ten of the spies wasn’t faith, but that they did not listen! They were commanded latur, to tour, but instead they spied – and we have been calling them spies ever since. In other words, they completely misunderstood their mission, because they completely misunderstood the narrative. Their mission was to tour the land and bring back the good they found, and they did bring back a good report. But then they added the bad, acting as spies rather than as tourists, and in so doing undermined the whole purpose behind why they were sent in the first place – with catastrophic result.
Understanding the narrative around us is important at all times, but especially in times of crisis. Our ability to find our way through successfully depends to a great extent on our ability to learn and understand the narratives which surround us, not just the ones we want to believe.
For example, I want to believe the words in the Pledge of Allegiance which describe the United States as “one nation, under God.” I wish it were true, but it is not. I cannot remember a time when we were more polarized and divided than we are now. We face a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of racial injustice – and our political dysfunction is so deeply entrenched that what should be basic common sense is in and of itself politicized and polarized in ways that further divide us. We will never find our way through unless we learn to pay attention our narratives, which if they are based in reality, must include the narratives of the people around us. In other words, we must learn from the would-be spies of the Torah; we must learn to listen.
We can still make it to the Promised Land.
We will make mistakes along the way.
Please, God, may it take less than forty years.
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
This is the week everything changes. The first ten chapters of the book of Numbers are about the pageantry and grand preparations for our great national journey of uplift. No longer will we be on the path from oppression in Egypt. No, midway through chapter ten we start on the road to the Promised Land. We are finally on our way! We are no longer fleeing but moving with direction and purpose towards a brighter future!
One might imagine that the Israelites were joyful at this moment, that they anticipated the freedom which beckoned just over the horizon.
Nope. Not at all.
The careful planning and ceremonious ordering fell apart even as the journey began. The Israelites did not rejoice – they complained! They wanted better food. They remembered the fresh food which they ate in Egypt, while conveniently forgetting their enslavement, and they worked themselves into a frenzy. Moses bore the brunt of their anger and fell into the deepest despair of his career. He was ready to throw in the towel. Rabbi Noah Farkas writes: “After the greatest liberation in history and the greatest revelation in history, it is lunch that brings Moses to the breaking point.”
God, of course, helps Moses, but that is for a different drash.
Instead, let’s consider why Torah takes ten full chapters to set the stage for an orderly and triumphant journey, and then chronicles how those plans unravel. Indeed, the entire rest of the book is about just that – everything that went wrong along the way.
The journey should have been straightforward, a few weeks or months, if only life didn’t get in the way. Perhaps that is the message. No matter how carefully we plan, we cannot control the world around us. Nor can we control the people around us. Indeed, sometimes we even struggle to control ourselves. The plan was great in theory. It’s just that the people were not ready. So, over the course of the book of Numbers, God will develop a new plan, a slower and more painful plan, which will eventually get us through the Wilderness.
Today, COVID 19 has upended all of our plans. It has infected millions, killing over 400,000 people worldwide and overwhelming our health care systems. It has wrecked our economies and infrastructures and caused additional pain and trauma through the imposed isolation of social distancing. And, in the United States, is has also shed new light on the devasting and systemic racism which stands in stark contrast to the central values of our republic. If the goal of our founding fathers was to truly create a nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of our citizens, then the plan has failed for entire swaths of our population. We are in the Wilderness and the plan isn’t working.
Despair is one reaction. Another is to do as God instructed Moses: don’t go it alone, get help.
Today we are in the separate yet connected wildernesses of COVID and of racism. Yet, amidst all of the pain and suffering, fear and rage, are signs of hope. More people have worked together to protect the health of others through social distancing and medical research than ever before in human history. Protests and sustained political pressure following the murder of George Floyd have created never before seen momentum for new interracial partnerships and the kind of national soul-searching that can lead to real change.
We are deep in the wilderness, but there is a Promised Land. Perhaps now we are finally on the path from slavery to the promise. We will need a new plan, flexible enough to change along the way. It will take longer that we wish. It will not be easy. Yet I have every faith, that one day, together, we will arrive.
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
For as long as I can remember, we Jews have spoken about the importance of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the world. When we began to look at how broken the world is and worried that it was too much to handle, we (quoted the rabbis and) said, “We are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” [Pirke Avot 2:16] And while historically, we have more often than not been among the most at-risk humans on the planet, recently we have enjoyed relative comfort and stability. This, in turn, has led some of us, perhaps many of us, to a place of disconnect, of not being sensitive to the brokenness around us and God’s call for us to be agents of healing, of repair.
Then COVID struck – and suddenly everyone was at risk together.
Except we weren’t. People of color were far more at risk than white people, because of the inequalities baked into our society.
Then the economy tanked – and everyone was at risk together. Except we weren’t.
Then George Floyd was murdered by officers who are supposed to serve and protect, and it was caught on video, and the nation saw, and the protests erupted, and the fires were lit, and our national leaders poured more violence into the mix, increasing the fissures of brokenness rather than finding paths towards healing.
And the pain, and the suffering, and the outrage, and the fear became unbearable, overwhelming. Our great nation is so broken, and we feel so helpless.
Yet we are not helpless, nor are we, by ourselves, the solution.
As I always do, when I need guidance and direction, I turn to Torah. This week’s portion, Naso, contains two separate teachings written for this moment. In the opening verse of the parasha, the Israelite census from the last portion is continued. However, the Hebrew for how we count is important – indeed, it is how this portion got its name:
“Naso et rosh – lift up the heads of the people of the Gershonites, too …” [Ex. 4:21-22]
Each time a tribe or clan of Israel was counted in the census, the phrase naso et rosh – lift up their heads, is invoked. Torah calls to us, despite everything, to lift up our heads, to know that we count, that even if we cannot fix all that is broken, we can still be agents of repair.
This is where the second teaching comes in:
“Should a man or a woman commit any of the human offenses (chatot ha’adam), to betray the trust of God, that person shall bear guilt. And they shall confess their offenses which they committed …” [Ex. 5:5-7]
The first step to lifting our heads and becoming agents of repair, is to look within, and to recognize our part, conscious or unconscious, large or small, active or passive, in supporting the status quo of brokenness. Even more, if we pay attention to the grammar in Torah, we can see that while the teaching starts in the singular, it moves to the plural “they.” From this the rabbis understood that creating a just society is not merely a matter of individual agency, but a collective responsibility. We are our brother’s keepers. The entire Torah exists to teach this lesson. When we ignore each other’s pain, or worse, intensify the suffering, we “betray the trust of God.”
In the June edition of the Atlantic, George Parker wrote:
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, in responding to Parker’s statement, teaches:
“Indeed, we must confess the pre-existing conditions which have plagued humanity for centuries and threaten our democracy today – racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and ableism. These ills all boil down to thinking some lives matter more than others. We must rid our world of these toxins to prevail against Coronavirus and whatever other threats come our way.”
Let us look deeply within ourselves. Let us listen with humility and attention to those around us. Let us acknowledge our place in the world as it was before Coronavirus and let us choose how we will live in the world as is should be.
Then we can lift up our heads and know that our lives count.
 Parker, George. The Atlantic, “We are Living in a Failed State,” June 2020.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras