7 haiku for Parsha Korach (my almond blossoms are bigger than yours) by Rick Lupert


I
Moses heard and fell
on his face, it says – It was
all very slapstick

II
The future will be
decided on the scent of
rebellious incense

III
Does killing all the
dissenters always have to
be the go to plan?

IV
It’s become clear I’ve
underestimated the
value of incense

V
Always men and our
contest of staffs – My almond
blossoms are biggest

VI
And the descendants
of Aaron shall forever
live in apartments

VII
Levites – Your temple’s
professional staff – Give them
the best from your vats


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Korach: Bring others up, not down


To raise or to lower? That is a crucial question for a person to consider regarding how one’s spiritual life impacts other people and the world itself.

Do I wield my Judaism, my Torah, my very being in a way that raises others up? Or pushes them down? And even when I am down, knocked to the floor by others, do I muster the character to help others soar? Or do I use my power, influence or rage in order to stomp?

Within a religious community for which the notion of aliyah is so ubiquitous and resonant — whether with respect to being called to the Torah, or moving to Israel, or even what one hopes for one’s soul after death — attuning our daily encounters toward contributing to others’ ascent needs to be a more prominent part of a Jew’s life.

We learn this message from Korach and his anti-heroism in this week’s parsha. Many have pointed out that the content of his complaint against Moshe has merit; after all, Moshe and Aharon seem to set themselves above the rest of the congregation. It appears that all Korach is trying to do is to democratize the spiritual and political life of ancient Israel, and have all be equal before God — not a terrible goal. And yet, how he goes about it reveals more venal motivations.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the 19th-century Chasidic master, makes this point in his Mei HaShiloach.  He quotes a midrash that imagines a circular geometry governing God’s relationship with all people; each of us is along the circumference, equidistant from God at the center. That, according to the Izhbitser Rebbe, is what Korach is claiming he envisions for Israel. And yet, when Korach and his fellow Levite clan members are themselves offered greater authority and access, they do not demur. Rather, they embrace the hierarchy. This suggests that Korach’s true intent was not to democratize or flatten hierarchy, but rather invert it. They didn’t just want themselves to rise. They wanted others to fall. They wanted to be at the peak, at the expense of others’ descent.

This is hinted at within the vocabulary of the opening lines of the drama. Korach accuses Moshe of lording over the congregation of Israel. The Hebrew is “titnas’eu,” from the root n-s-a, meaning to rise. Some translations have Korach complaining against Moshe’s “exalting himself” over the other Israelites. Is Korach recognizing something true about Moshe? Or is he perseverating upon rank and status because that is the only relational language he understands? 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out that we are most able to identify, and be troubled by, the very flaws in others that we, perhaps unconsciously, struggle with ourselves. Korach notices Moshe’s communal stature and height because Korach wants to be high and of status. Korach critiques Moshe, though deep down he envies Moshe and determines the only way for him to rise is for Moshe to fall.

How tragic. And how common, in more than one sense of the word.

This stance is in contradistinction to Moshe’s own modeling. Just two weeks ago, within Parashat Beha’alotecha, Moshe is brought quite low by the people’s clamoring accusations and insults — even from his own siblings. Nevertheless, he uses his audience with God not to raise himself at others’ expense, but rather to argue on behalf of his constituents and then pray that Miriam be healed, that she be raised up.

Can we reach that level? Ought we not at least aspire to it? Perhaps this aspiration should be a daily meditation. An early version of the siddur, comprised by Rav Amram Gaon in the ninth century, includes something along those lines. “May it be your will, Adonai our God, that you grant us a good heart and a generous spirit, humility and modesty, and good companions.” The Hebrew I have translated as “humility and modesty” is ruach n’mukhah and ruach sh’falah, perhaps better rendered as a “short” and “low” spirit.

I don’t think Rav Amram was praying that Jews go through their days debased and humiliated, heads slung low. Rather, the prayer was that we resist the urge to constantly climb higher, particularly on the backs of others’ decline. Perhaps that is why “humility and modesty” are so closely associated with “good companions.” When we use our voice, words and spirit to bring others higher, rather than lower, we will grow in friendship, we will grow in the stature that matters most, and we will grow the community in which we live.

Our times are fraught. On issues domestic, geopolitical, religious, status-based, Israel-focused and beyond, people are taking sides and staking claims more vociferously than I can remember. Perhaps the era calls for particularly strong stances in defense of the just. But strength need not be exhibited only via stridency. Truth and goodness have their own power, without the aid of battering rams. We ought to articulate our convictions with both confidence and humility. In eschewing Korach and emulating Moshe, may our very beings be an aliyah and lead most pointedly to the rise of righteousness and the ascent of the others in our midst. 


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am (tbala.org), a Conservative congregation in West Los Angeles.

Torah Portion: Bloom and Stone, Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)


In 2013, I traveled in Nepal with six dear friends, including two Americans who have lived there on and off for several decades. The amazing land is filled with an endlessly fascinating history and charming, friendly people, but my travel companions and I frequently noted the apparent fragility of buildings — in the countryside as well as in the rapidly expanding city of Katmandu. Knowing a little about the fault lines and tectonic plates throughout the region, we more than once speculated what would happen when (not if) a big earthquake struck.

So it was no surprise to us when we heard this past April and May of the many walls that came tumbling down in the ancient temples and historic buildings, schools, homes and museums of Nepal, many of which we had visited. And it was heartbreakingly easy to imagine, even without the images on the news, the many adults and children killed, hurt or left homeless, cut off from supply routes, and failed by their modern but unreliable communication systems (because of limited availability, electricity in Katmandu was typically turned off for hours every day).

As often happens when disaster strikes (think 9/11, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, Ebola), our social media fill with heartwarming stories of people reaching out to help one another. With these stories, what seemed unimaginably horrible becomes an opportunity to find strength, restore our hope in humankind and maybe even our faith in God.

Perhaps that’s why I sometimes sneak past the compelling, rowdy, infamous opening of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, with its rebellion against Moses and Aaron — complete with the earth opening up to swallow the chutzpadik rebels — and find myself instead enthralled and deeply moved by two quieter, sometimes even overlooked passages a little further on.

The first comes after Moses and Aaron defended the people, persuading God not to annihilate the entire community. The disasters that followed the uprising — earthquake, fire, plague — swiftly killed the 250 leaders of the revolt, then 14,700 additional people. 

But the catastrophes came to a quiet stop when Aaron “ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people … and he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was halted” (Numbers 17:12-13). 

When I read of Aaron’s brave action, I think of those whose love or sense of decency or pursuit of justice activate them. The many who came to help people with AIDS in the terrible early years of that plague, or more recently with Ebola, the people who reached out even in a time of uncertainty about how these viruses spread. 

Aaron brings to mind the people who wade into dangerous situations in an effort to extricate those in peril. People acting on their own or working for organizations such as American Jewish World Service, which sends people and funds to help in disaster areas or to further human rights in the developing world. They campaign to stop genocide, fight global hunger, respond to epidemics, earthquakes and hurricanes, and work to end violence against women, girls and LGBT people worldwide. (See ajws.org to learn more about AJWS and how you can help.)

When the first-century sage Hillel taught: “Be one of Aaron’s students, loving peace and pursuing it, loving people and bringing them to the Torah” (Pirke Avot 1:12), surely he was thinking, in part, of the actions of Aaron at this moment in the wilderness. It is Aaron who risked his life by choosing to stand up for the living, even though the living were challenging him and his brother Moses, threatening them, making their lives difficult. It is Aaron, lover and pursuer of peace, whose actions bring an end to the enmity and the violence. 

Next, God brings a much subtler, far gentler miracle: God causes Aaron’s staff — symbol of his leadership — to sprout, bringing forth flowers and almonds. God then instructs Moses, as a reminder to the people, to place Aaron’s blossoming staff in front of the stone tablets of the Pact — the second set of stone tablets, Judaism’s enduring symbol of second chances. 

In Parashat Korach, the frightened, angry Israelites, still stinging from the punishments doled out by God, don’t yet understand the message of Aaron’s blossoming staff beside the stone tablets — they aren’t yet “brought to Torah” by Aaron. But we, who look from a greater distance, can accept his invitation. 

Today, no matter what challenges we face, these images of bloom and stone remind us of Judaism’s perpetual growth from its rock-solid foundation, making us grateful to Aaron and God for their abiding invitation to embrace the covenant and choose life not only for ourselves, but for others who need our help.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), “House of New Life,” founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual Jews, our families and friends.

Korach: From rebellious to sacred


This article originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about rebellious Israelites, led by Korach. While his complaints about the status of Moses and Aaron might seem like the words of an early democratic activist, his intentions were actually self-serving. He is “the arch-demagogue, lusting for power to inflate his own prominence, not to serve the people” (Etz Hayim, p. 860). He led a group of Israelites in opposition to not only Moses and Aaron but “that of Torah, and ultimately, God.” (Etz Hayim, p. 860). Rabbi Samuel Barth notes, “The sin of Korah was in thinking of himself as “outside the community”; he betook himself and his followers from being part of the People of Israel, and they became a faction, catalysts for further factionalization.”

Rabbi Moshe Bryski, on Chabad.org writes that Korach lived his life yearning for a different one, jealous of others. He comments that “A person who sees the essence of life as serving the will of His Creator does not expend useless energy craving places where the grass is greener. He finds meaning, purpose, joy and fulfillment in the place where the grass is greenest of all: his own.”

It does not end well for Korach and his followers who are subsumed into a gaping hole in the Earth. Afterwards, God commands that their fire pans be made “into flattened out plates as an overlay for the altar, for they brought them before the Lord, and have [therefore] become sanctified, and they shall be as a reminder for the children of Israel” (17:3). In writing about the transformation of the fire pans from tools that were used to rebel against Moses to sacred altar pieces, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz writes, “the potential for the blemish to become sacred in our lives. If the blemish can be used as a teaching tool, then each of us will succeed in building a more hopeful future.”

The dish I made this week–vegan pancakes with strawberry compote–is inspired by the Korach’s fire pans and the sweetness of Torah. Pancakes are a thin and humble dish, unlike Korach’s inflated sense of self  (if I was making a dish representative of Korach, the person, I imagine it would be a souffle!). The strawberry compote on top represent the sweetness of Torah that withstood the challenges of Korach and his followers.

While pancakes are generally thought of as breakfast food, I think that these are so delicious and can easily be served as dessert! They are vegan and made with spelt flour, an ancient grain that has a delicious nutty flavor. It’s also strawberry season and they are so delicious right now-I can’t stop eating them! If you can’t find fresh organic strawberries, try other berries that are in season now. I find strawberries naturally sweet but if they’re too tart add a chopped Medjool date or two, to the compote.

Korach: Vegan spelt pancakes with no-sugar added strawberry compote

Ingredients

Pancakes: This is a modified recipe that was originally published on the Alkaline Sisters

  • 1 cup spelt flour
  • 2 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plant-based milk (I used a combination of plain almond and soy)
  • 2 tbsp canola or sunflower oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • coconut oil or other high heat oil for pan

 

Strawberry compote

  • 1 1/2 cups organic strawberries
  • 1-3 tbsp water
  • 1-2 finely chopped Medjool dates (optional)

 

Preparation

Strawberry compote:

1. Thoroughly wash strawberries.

2. Add strawberries, water, and optional dates to a small pot.

3. Cook over low heat, about 10-15 minutes. Mash strawberries with a fork or spoon as they cook and stir periodically to prevent burning.  When finished, remove from heat.

Pancakes

1. Mix all dry ingredients together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix wet ingredients together. Then, pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients bowl and lightly mix. Let sit for about 5 minutes.

2. Place a skillet on low-medium heat and add a dollop of high heat oil (I used coconut oil). Place a spoonful of batter and allow to cook on first side until it bubbles and is lightly browned. Then, flip over and cook on second side.

4. Place finished pancakes on wire rack to prevent them from getting soggy.

5. Serve with a scoop of strawberry compote on top.

B’tayavon!

Lies, lies, lies: Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)


My daughter, a soon-to-graduate high school senior, was chosen by a teacher to participate in an event to teach the school a lesson about drunk driving. Before school one day, organizers would set up a scene with a crashed car and police tape. My daughter and the other chosen participants would gather in a room instead of attending first period, making them appear to be missing. It would then be announced that they had been killed in the crash. 

In a letter sent home for me to sign, organizers wrote that this event had great potential to teach a strong, experiential lesson about the importance of not driving while drunk. They asked us to follow the rules of the plan, committing to maintain its secrecy — my daughter was forbidden to tell other students, even her own boyfriend. And I was asked to play along, too, appearing at a school assembly to speak about the tragedy of losing my child to drunk driving. 

The scenario came to mind while thinking about this week’s parasha, named for Korach, who led an insurrection against Moses and Aaron. Korach rounded up some 250 community leaders and they began to foment discontent among the masses. They underscored the people’s hunger, suggesting that things were better in Egypt, the “true land of milk and honey.” They undermined confidence in Moses and Aaron, saying they had only brought them all to the desert to die. And they asserted that everyone in the camp is holy, not just the leaders who claimed to be chosen by God. Thus, everyone should be empowered to lead. There is no need for hierarchy!

These arguments seemed to be based on the public’s best interest. The people did need to eat; maybe the fact that they felt their needs were going unmet was proof that Moses and Aaron could not be trusted. And the social anarchism Korach’s men seemed to be propounding — that the best ruler is the people themselves — is an attractive argument to any downtrodden lot.

What the mutineers failed to mention as they spread their discontent was that their motivation was far from pure. Korach was a Levite, a cousin of Moses; others were leaders in the Reubenite tribe. The midrash makes the connection: These were men who felt they and their families had been overlooked in the selection of Aaron and his sons to serve in the Temple as priests. 

They wanted what Moses and Aaron had: power. They did not plan to make things more comfortable, safe and fair; rather, they wanted to be in charge. Their words were propaganda, designed to manipulate the public to their own ends. But as it says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), controversy that is not for the sake of heaven, such as the deceptive words of Korach and his band, will not prevail. In fact, Korach and all his followers were swallowed up by the earth later in the chapter. 

My daughter’s school was proposing to create a grand-scale lie and asked my family to be a part of perpetuating it. I thought of how I would feel if I thought my daughter was killed in a car crash, even for a second, and I pictured her friends beside themselves with distress. They might sneak their phones and text their parents, or post the “news” to social media, potentially spreading panic across the city. The police could be besieged with calls, wasting taxpayers’ money. Someone hearing the news could have a heart attack or sustain other injuries. 

I declined to permit my daughter to participate, calling the plan unacceptable. The trust that students and parents have in their school is a precious commodity that administrators should not bring into question. If they would lie about the safety of children, what else would they do that should not be believed?

Apparently, I was not the only parent who refused to play along. Organizers retooled the event, which was held last week, keeping the crashed-car display and the school assembly, but leaving out the mock loss of life. As it turned out, five Irvine teens were killed for real in a collision the day before, putting parents nationwide on edge. It’s a good thing cooler heads prevailed.

The problem with lies isn’t just that they are false and aggravating. They distort the reality of their recipients, creating a prison in which the teller is empowered toward his or her own ends, but everyone else is held captive. In the big picture, lies set in motion forces that, once loosed, cannot be contained; a force with the potential to destroy the foundation of trust, the very ground on which we stand as a society. 

No wonder the midrash says the sun and moon threatened to stop shining if God did not make sure Moses prevailed over Korach. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.

For Heaven’s Sake


The Torah portion for this Shabbat is Korach, which details a disastrous mutiny led by Korach, a first cousin of Moses and Aaron. Korach says to Moses, who is leading the Jewish people through the Sinai desert on the way to Canaan: "You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation is holy, every one of them and the Lord is among them: therefore, why do you raise yourself above the assembly of the Lord?"

The legitimacy and arguments of Korach and his followers are rejected by God as stated in our Torah portion. Korach felt that Moses had overlooked him when he made the appointment of chief of the Levite division of Kohat. Korach thought he should have gotten the job. What started as a family fight, soon turned into a major political upheaval through the skillful manipulations of Korach.

In Pirke Avot (5:19) we read: "A controversy for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for heaven’s sake? The debates between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korach and his assembly."

More than a few rabbis from various branches of Judaism have viewed other branches of Judaism as resembling Korach’s rebellion and have called them "inauthentic" and have used considerable quantities of ink to demean and invalidate their views. In contradistinction to Korach and the 250 princes who followed him, I see many leaders of the streams of Judaism today as teaching Torah Judaism with sincere goals that are for the sake of heaven. The debate today by the most respected leaders of some streams of Judaism is more like the classical rabbinic disagreements between Hillel and Shammai, where each would quote the other with profound respect (and not a put-down) before advocating their own position. Dennis Prager coined a term years ago describing "serious Jews" as those who come from different Jewish backgrounds but who share a passion for Judaism, Jewish texts and a commitment to Jewish living. Serious Jews can debate each other with respect while quoting their sources to support their different views.

I remember Sonja Silverman (who died in 1980) for the continuous inspiration she derived from Judaism. She would shlep all over Los Angeles to attend lectures by rabbis of every stripe. If she knew a particular rabbi or scholar had some precious Torah teaching to offer — she was there. Sonja inspired me. Her husband, Phil, inspired me and continues to do so by his teachings. Forty-one years ago, he was my confirmation teacher at a Reform temple. Sonja taught in various religious schools around town.

I distinctly remember Sonja cringing when a rabbi would clarify a point about Judaism by saying in a put-down tone: "However, according to the Orthodox [or Reform, or Conservative, etc.]," because Sonja was a Jew with appreciation for all branches of Judaism and absolute loyalty to no one movement. Her loyalty was to the entirety of Judaism, to Torah and to God. In her mind, as I understood her, one should not limit Judaism to a particular "stream," to use today’s terminology.

The philosophy of Jewish institutions such as Brandeis-Bardin Institute, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and The Los Angeles Community Bet Din is encouraging.

I remember one of my teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who today is the regional rabbi of Efrat in Israel, advocated several years ago that there be a bet din for conversion that would require nine rabbis — six more than what Jewish law mandates — in order that Reform and Conservative movements should be represented without taking away the Orthodox requirement for three Orthodox rabbis. Though his proposal never was enacted at that time, may God bless his intention and his efforts — perhaps one day they shall bear fruit.

Years ago I heard a fellow Jew, who does not keep kosher in any way, criticize another for eating kosher only at home but eating out in non-kosher restaurants, even foods that were clearly not kosher. I knew the other person he was speaking to, who at one time did not observe kashrut at home. I cringed when I heard one Jew berating the other. In my mind I was admiring how this Jewish person had begun on the path of observance and was slowly but surely moving up the ladder, despite his current inconsistencies. In my mind this was far preferable to being consistently treif in all matters of observance, which was the modus operandi of the first Jew, whom I also knew quite well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that we should not only make sure that the food that enters our mouths be kosher but that the words that come out of our mouths be kosher, as well. One can be meticulously kosher with the food he eats and completely treif by his language and intonation.

Some believe that anyone more observant than oneself is a fanatic and anyone less observant or knowledgeable than oneself is an ignoramus. Hillel and Shammai would reject such judgements. Consistency is not the highest value in Judaism — unless we are consistently working for ways to bring our people together by emphasizing our shared goals and values. Then any disagreements between us will be debated with respect and will be advocated for the sake of heaven. Then we shall remark in wonder how "these seemingly contradictory positions and statements are both expressions of the living God."


Gershon Johnson is rabbi at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.