Earlier this week, at home with our two year old, a great moment finally arrived. I was drinking from our mug that says: A woman’s place is in the resistance, with a picture of Princess Leia on it. And our toddler pointed at it and looked at me inquisitively. And I took a deep breath because the moment had come. I said: that is Princess Leia…well, General Leia. She is part of the Rebel army, part of the resistance, sworn to protect the people. Then we looked at pictures of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, of course Yoda—what child isn’t drawn to a small green Muppet with fuzzy hair? And then, because we had to—she also needs to know about the dark side—we talked about Darth Vader and the evil Empire, bent on destroying the galaxy for their own power. And now, when I say—are we part of the resistance? She says: Yes. Are we part of the Empire? No. And I think: My work here is done.
Then we read this week’s parsha, parshat Korach, and we quickly remember that sometimes it’s more complicated than that and it can be difficult to suss out who is on which side.
Take the protagonist of this week’s parsha, a guy named Korach. He’s part of the massive group of Israelites who are wandering the wilderness from Mitzrayim—ancient Egypt—to the Promised Land. Korach steps up to Moses, who is leading this nomadic group, and publicly questions Moses’ authority.
Korach says to Moses and his brother Aaron: You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
Now this is where it gets a little muddled. These are good words, no? Doesn’t he sound like he is part of the resistance? Trying to democratize holiness, give equal access to God, challenge the hierarchy. Doesn’t it sound like he is fighting for the good of the people, for peace in the galaxy? Aren’t we all equal, Korach demands?
And yet. Ultimately, in punishment for his actions, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of the people who sided with him. So, the rabbis of the Talmud have to figure out—what happened here?
So they crawl inside Korach’s brain and this is what they come up with. They say that arguments like these are good and important—but only if they are l’shem shamayim—for the sake of Heaven. For the sake of making things better, for the sake of wholeness, of peace. These kinds of arguments, they say, need to be heard. However, the rabbis teach, Korach’s argument was not this kind of argument. It was, they say, lo l’shem shamayim—not for the sake of Heaven. These kinds of arguments destroy, diminish, and degrade. Korach’s argument was l’shem Korach, for his own sake. For his own ego. What looks to be for the good of the people is a power grab and he does it just when the people are most vulnerable to it.
On a journey from the devil we knew—slavery and oppression in Mitzrayim—to a vast and somewhat terrifying unknown, in our sacred narrative, our people have just been told that we are to wander this unknown wilderness for another 40 years. We are afraid. We are tired. We are under considerable stress. And Korach swoops in and takes advantage of that.
How do we know? There are some important and instructive hints in the text itself.
First, Moses tries to listen to Korach’s claims and so he calls Korach’s deputies—Datan and Abiram, to come and talk with him, to really hear them and maybe come to an agreement. And they refuse. And not only do they refuse, but they say: “Lo na’aleh!” Most translations have this as “We will not come!” But na’aleh…like the word Aliyah…as in Aliyah to the Torah or making Aliyah to Israel… means not just to physically ascend, but to spiritually ascend. Lo na’aleh they say—we will not spiritually ascend in this moment. We will not elevate our argument or draw closer to holiness. We’d rather argue than make things better. Given a chance to come out well here, they instead reveal their truth—their argument is base and calculating in its intentions; it is meant to divide and set the people off-kilter, and they have no desire to elevate it—lo na’aleh. We will not rise.
And when all is done and the earth has swallowed Korach and his followers, the rest of the people are left behind, terrified and defeated. The text records the community saying to one another in despair: avadnu kulanu avadnu …We are lost, all of us, lost.
Korach’s treachery, his manipulation of their emotions and their vulnerability has left the people hopeless at a time when they most of all needed hope. He did not help them elevate their souls, their hearts, their lives. This is his greatest transgression. Korach claimed to be the resistance, to come in the name of the people, but the real resistance doesn’t leave people in a state of despair.
We are, all of us, on a challenging journey and a vulnerable moment. We as a congregation. We as a people. We as a country. It’s easy to feel isolated, to feel anxious about the path ahead of us. To look at the things happening on our national platform and feel hopeless, powerless to do anything about it. To whisper: avadnu kulanu avadnu…we are lost, all of us lost. To look at our congregation and wonder—what is ahead on our journey? Will we become who it is we hope to become in our next chapter? Certainly I feel it. I’m guessing we all do, a little. Will we grow, will we amplify joy and learning and justice and prayer and sacred life the way we know we can? Will we attain to our most elevated purpose?
If we steer in the opposite direction of Korach, then I believe we will. Where Korach chose actions and words that were intended to raise up only himself, we will choose actions and words that will honor all people. Where Korach chose to twist truths to tear down Moses and Aaron, we will choose to tell truths that lift each of us up. Where Korach generated fear, we will resist fear. Where Korach perpetuated suspicion, we will resist it and replace it with understanding. Where the people were left to trade in the currency of despair, we will trade in the currency of hope. Of community. Of possibility. Of the beauty and wonder of the future paths that lay before us. Even when it is hard. Even when we are afraid. We will not be swallowed up by this earth.
Because where Datan and Abiram chose to answer their call: lo na’aleh—we will not rise…we will look one another in the eyes, and for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of goodness and community and justice and wholeness, for the sake of joy, and with the courage to draw nearer to holiness, we will take one another’s hands and answer our call: na’aleh…we will rise. Together, we will rise.