Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Candy Store - Reflections on Parashat Korach 5775

(Numbers 16:1-18:32)

Korach was one clever cookie.

By dangling plums of power and glory, he cobbled together a rebellion from the most improbable group of malcontents: (1) some firstborn among the various Tribes of Israel, who sought the restoration of the traditional priesthood to the eldest sons; (2) some Reubenites, who, as descendants of Jacob's firstborn son Reuben, felt entitled to the priesthood; and (3) some Levites, who were dissatisfied with the support role they were assigned in Gcd's service, and coveted the priesthood for themselves.

These rival factions could agree on nothing - except that the High Priest Aaron (and his sons the Cohanim) had to go.

Korach knew that he couldn't keep his promises to them all, but no matter: they were useful idiots in the advancement of his secret agenda: a coup d'etat to topple Moses, to be replaced by none other than - Korach himself. 

And why not? Korach was rich where his cousin Moses was not; charismatic where Moses was reserved and stern. (Korach probably had whiter teeth, fresher breath and could bench press twice his body weight, too.)

But for all his advantages, Korach, as his name hints in the Hebrew, was cold as ice and just as slippery. Wealth made Korach insufferably arrogant (as wealth is wont to do), and his natural charisma drove his limitless ambition.

At the heart of Korach's insurrection is a question which bears heavily on Jewish life to this day: does "religion" serve Gcd, or is religion meant to serve us?

Korach stroked the egos of the insurrectionists by arguing that the purpose of religion was to serve them: after all, "kulam kedoshim," all the people are holy. Accordingly, Moses' lawbook should be edited to conform to the evolving needs and aesthetic sensibilities of the people. 

In this view, the synagogue is a spiritual service center, where people turn to have their afflictions comforted, their marriages sanctioned, their dead buried, their children bar-mitzvahed. And just like the local tire shop or dry cleaner, you don't give the place much thought when you aren't in need of the services provided.  

The consumerist view posits that religion is like powerful medicine: good to know it's there when you need it, but who takes Dayquil if you don't have the flu?

In the spiritual marketplace, the customer is king. Is your rabbi coming down a little hard on your lifestyle choices? No problem, go rabbi shopping! There are boatloads of others, one of whom is sure to give religious sanction to anything - and I mean anything - your little heart desires, and all for the most reasonable of fees. 

As savvy consumers, Korach and his motley crew were trading up - on both Moses and Aaron.

By contrast, Moses, the eved Hashem, the servant of Gcd, embodied the opposite view: that the religious life is a life of service, first to Gcd and then, by extension, to our fellow man.

Avodah, service, is all about performing Gcd's mitzvot with joy. Avodah is recognizing that the mitzvot come from Gcd through Moses, but not from Moses. Thus it's about doing the mitzvah even if we don't fully understand why, (and even as we resolve to gain deeper understanding) because we trust the Source. Avodah is about loving Gcd by doing His mitzvot with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.

In other words, true piety is not about calculating the take, the bennies that we extract from our religious experience as a spiritual consumer. Rather, it's all about the moment-to-moment hard work of spiritual growth and development, of what we give of ourselves to Gcd, quietly and without fanfare.

This contrast between Moses and Korach's view of the utility of religion is reflected in Pirkei Avot (5:17):
Every argument that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven -- it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and all of his followers.
Korach wasn't casting his eyes heavenward, in the service of Gcd, he was casting his eyes downward, dispensing candy to the Jews. Moses had nothing to offer them but spinach and hard work. 

Which is easier to sell?

Tragically, there is a lot of candy for sale in the Jewish world today. We live in a time when it has become fashionable to modernize Judaism with all kinds of updates and tweaks and improvements. 

The thorny problem is Moses' Lawbook, which is an obstacle to the new-and-improved Judaism. So Job One must be to delegitimize the Torah, undercut its authority. Then we can begin crafting a Judaism in our own image.

Don't like the wording of a particular prayer? A little liturgical nip-and-tuck is in order. Trim the fat. Cut out the parts you don't like, or better yet, write your own prayer book, which reflects your uber-sophisticated modern sensibilities (because let's just say it - it's all about you.)

Don't like a particular mitzvah? Cut and paste it out of the Book. Better yet, chuck the Torah out the window altogether and design your own customized faith system. Invent your own mitzvot. Then head out to the marketplace where you're sure to find a rabbi to call it "Judaism." 

And the pluralism thought-police demand that we equate candy corn and corn corn.

The Edward Scissorhands routine has become so pervasive in American Judaism that it becomes harder by the day to find the simple faith of our forbears, that dedication to truth, so nobly embodied for all generations by Moses.

Ultimately, Gcd had to intervene to remind people that the heart of the Jewish faith is not the Jewish People or Jewish Tradition, but the service of Gcd. Korach was literally swallowed by his own ambition, and his rebels destroyed. But as the parsha goes on to tell, the ripples of that rebellion spread in their time and in ours. 

Candy tastes good going down, but you will get sick and die if candy is your only food. Snickers doesn't satisfy. 

So it should come as no surprise that many Jews are rejecting the empty spiritual junk food on which they were raised in their suburban temples, or, at the other extreme, certain yeshivot where rigid conformity substitutes for honest intellectual inquiry. The spiritual seekers look instead to feed their souls from someone else's garden.

But more than a few have turned inward to discover the rich spiritual nutrition of avodah.

"Behold the days are coming, saith the Lcrd, when I will send a terrible famine in the land; not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the authentic words of Hashem." (Amos 8:11)

My prayer is that the entirety of the Jewish people will drink from the vivifying waters of Torah, and come to merit the great appellation conferred on Moses, Eved Ne'eman, the faithful servant of Gcd.

Shabbat Shalom.

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