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Korach - Respect Differences, Enjoy Commonalities

06/26/2023 08:38:04 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

We are celebrating today the wedding anniversary of Gayle and Allen Notowitz. Gayle and I have a shared passion - we both love backpacking.

Here’s something I don’t think I told you, Gayle. When my husband and I became parents, it was many years before I would think about becoming a rabbi and an educator. We knew nothing about children, and we thought  - “We’re not going to let this stop us!” We hauled our kids on these ambitious backpacking trips that were just miserable for them. It was an abject failure, and we had to abandon backpacking for years. 

I was inspired to try again when I heard about the short, gentle backpacking trips that you had done with your grandchildren, and the obvious dawned on me - meet the kids where they are at! 

And, not everyone in the family has to love the same thing. Al, it turns out, is not a backpacker. But Gayle and some of the grandchildren love it so much, after her surgery last summer they took HER on a trip, carrying her equipment for her.

Here’s what I think made that possible. Gayle and Allen raised their family to respect each other's differences, to enjoy their commonalities, and to let love reign.

That attitude is so evident this Shabbat. Some members of the Notowitz family are Orthodox. Davening in a shul with a microphone, no mechitzah separating the genders, various innovations to the liturgy, I’m guessing it’s not comfortable for them. Some members of the Notowitz family are not Jewish or not Jewishly engaged. Davening at all may not be comfortable for them.  But they are all here this Shabbat, to honor Gayle and Allen. 

If only we could all adopt that attitude, in every area of life.

Respect differences
Enjoy commonalities
And let love reign.

I want to share with you a remarkable story, of an old friend of mine whom I just met up with again recently. His name is Arieh Sharnberg. He grew-up in California. His father is a Reform rabbi, very liberal, and very outspoken about his politics. Arieh himself became Orthodox. As a young adult, he made Aliyah, emigrating to Israel. He totally immersed himself in Israeli culture.  But he held on to many of the liberal values he had grown up with, and he moves easily between many different pockets of Israeli society.

At the time of this story, Arieh was living in Jaffah. He liked to shul hop, and he had a few synagogues that he attended regularly. One was a Moroccan congregation. It was mostly working class families. A tight community, and Arieh - who is tall, thin and fair and has excellent Hebrew but with a slight American accent - must have stood out. They welcomed him warmly. 

One of the highlights of Shabbats at that Moroccan synagogue is the mid-morning adult treats - Arak, a highly alcoholic liqueur made from fennel, and Sumsum, sesame sweets laced with marijuana. (That’s going to be important for the story later.)

Among the many heated political issues Israel grapples with is whether and how to welcome non-Jewish refugees who arrive at the border. Israel is at the crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, and about 25,000 African asylum-seekers are living in Israel with uncertain status. Most are from Sudan, which is in the throes of a violent civil war. 

The political pushes and pulls that surround this issue are very similar to those we grapple with here. Defenders of the refugees emphasize our common humanity. They focus on the suffering of the refugees, and on their positive contributions to the Israeli workforce. Critics focus on the refugees' willingness to work for low pay, driving down wages for everyone else, and on the poverty and associated hardships the refugees bring with them.

Sudanese refugees are not popular in the working class Moroccan synagogue where Arieh likes to daven.

One day, Arieh joined a demonstration in South Tel Aviv, in support of asylum-seekers. As they stood holding signs about love and compassion, a counter-protest began to form on the other side of the street. And then the tone changed.  On the one side, they were demanding that the foreigners go home. And on Arieh's side, people began shouting: “Racists, go home!” 

Now Arieh began to feel uncomfortable. He came to express love and compassion for his fellow human, not hatred for his fellow Jew. 

And then, on the other side of the street, Arieh saw a familiar face. It was one of the men from the Moroccan synagogue. Arieh didn’t tell me his name, so I’ll call him Shimon. Arieh left the group of liberal protestors, and crossed the street to say hello to Shimon.

How quickly passion turns to conflict! Especially when people are feeling deprived, scared or unheard. 

In last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites suffered their greatest crisis of faith. They had spent two years crossing the Sinai desert, and God and Moses were ready to lead them into the Promised Land. But the Israelites panicked, and did not believe they could do it. So they were condemned to wander for 40 years in the desert, until their entire generation died out. They were told that only the next generation would enter the land.

The shame, fear and anger of last week’s portion, is the backdrop for this week’s Torah portion. 

Let’s look at the text. 16:1-3
וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח בֶּן־יִצְהָ֥ר בֶּן־קְהָ֖ת בֶּן־לֵוִ֑י וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם בְּנֵ֧י אֱלִיאָ֛ב וְא֥וֹן בֶּן־פֶּ֖לֶת בְּנֵ֥י רְאוּבֵֽן׃
וַיָּקֻ֙מוּ֙ לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַאֲנָשִׁ֥ים מִבְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים וּמָאתָ֑יִם נְשִׂיאֵ֥י עֵדָ֛ה קְרִאֵ֥י מוֹעֵ֖ד אַנְשֵׁי־שֵֽׁם׃

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben —
to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.

I want to tweak the translation a little. The Hebrew doesn’t say “they rose up against”, but they “rose before”.  

וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן
They combined against Moses and Aaron…

A better translation isn’t “they combined”, but they “gathered”.  The Hebrew gives an image very much like those two sets of demonstrators in South Tel Aviv, one group on each side of the street - kinsman, squaring off against each other.

What do you think happened when Arieh broke lines? He had gone over hoping to make peace. Shimon looked at him in disgust: “Go back to where you came from, you rich American.”

For the record, Arieh is not wealthy. Not that it should matter.

Moses, too, tried to reach an understanding. Let’s turn the page, to verse 12. This is a critical moment in the story.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִקְרֹ֛א לְדָתָ֥ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֖ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָ֑ב וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֹ֥א נַעֲלֶֽה׃
Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come!”

Moses wanted to talk face-to-face. The Talmud explains that Moses “sought them out, to try to make peace”.  Datan and Aviram were entrenched in their anger, and would not communicate.

When anger overcomes communication, the first thing we lose is the ability to listen. The second is the ability to talk. At that point, reconciliation is almost impossible.

The story does not end well. The Torah deals in the realm of archetypes, and when human communications fail so badly, there is no way to co-exist. There was only place the story could go - God intervenes, causing the earth to open up, and Korach, Datan, Aviram and all their company disappear forever. 

Nothing quite so dramatic happened in South Tel Aviv, thank God. Eventually the demonstrators dispersed and everyone went home. But when Arieh next showed up at the Moroccan synagogue on Shabbat, no one spoke to him. When it came time to pass around the Arak and the Sumsum, the person distributing the treats pointedly ignored him. 

Then Shimon came over. “Do you know why you don’t get any sumsum?” he asked. “It’s because you were demonstrating against us.”

My friend Arieh is fast on his feet. “So what you’re telling me,” he said, “is that you spoke lashon ha’rah against me, and now I’m not welcome here.”  Lashon ha’rah means literally “evil tongue”, and it’s the rabbinic word for gossip.

Arieh had come to the synagogue with an intrinsic respect for differences, and joy in commonalities. When things got tense, he held on to both these values. The respect was not returned. In mentioning la’shon ha’rah, implicitly Arieh was reminding Shimon of their common values. Lashon ha’rah is a very basic rabbinic no-no.

“No, no, no,” Shimon said, “I would never speak la’shon ha’rah.”  But clearly he had.

Arieh stayed away from the Moroccan synagogue for some time. One of his other favorite synagogues was a muli-cultural one, where Jews of European and Moroccan descent, prayed side-by-side, with many others. One Shabbat, Shimon showed up at the multi-cultural synagogue. This time, he approached Arieh with a different affect. He was ready to talk. In this conversation, Arieh and Shimon were able to hear each other. They were never going to agree about Israel’s immigration policies. But they could respect their differences.

Of course, once spoken, lashon ha’rah is not so easy to reverse. Many of you probably know the story of the feather pillow, and the feathers that dispersed to the wind. Before Arieh could return to the Moroccan synagogue, he had to speak to that community’s rabbi. The rabbi was appalled that Arieh had been made to feel so unwelcome. He spoke to his community, and Arieh was able to return and was warmly offered sumsum again.

It’s easy to respect differences that don’t really matter. It’s when the stakes feel high that it becomes very hard. For Shimon, low wages and poverty were a deeply personal issue, and he saw the refugees contributing to his hardships.

The more you care, the harder it is to respect differences. What was true in the Moroccan synagogue is true at CBJ. The more committed you feel to the community, the harder it is to accept the diversity of views within our tent. 

And in our own families, even little things can seem like very high stakes.

The answer is not to disengage from the relationship. Sometimes, a little to cool off is needed. But then come back, and speak face-to-face. Celebrate our commonalities. Look for shared values. And ultimately, let love reign.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, September 28 2023 13 Tishrei 5784