From Ash Levine

When I first read this portion, I was deeply uncomfortable with the portrait it painted. Korach and his collaborators were living in a difficult moment. The Israelites had just learned that they wouldn’t be permitted to enter the promised land in their lifetimes. Moses had sole political leadership of the community, and Aaron — Moses’s brother — has the highest religious office. Taken together, that doesn’t look great. The primary goal of all of the wandering through the desert is no longer in reach, and one could pretty easily infer that Moses is hoarding power for his own family. This is a textbook case of a moment that is ripe for political change.  

Given all of that, I was fairly sympathetic to Korach’s question that, if all of the community is holy, why are Moses and Aaron raised above the rest. This is an argument we could hear today. In fact, we explicitly make this argument. Every week, we affirm the inherent holiness of everyone in our community, and we strive to make equal space for each unique expression of what it means to be in relationship with the divine. That’s what brings me to Mishkan and Judaism generally. So, perhaps you can see why I didn’t feel a swell of pride in our tradition when I read, ‘the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions,’ and that the 250 men who offered incense to God were burned in a divine fire. 

There’s a lot to dislike here. Did God need to kill everyone in the household? Did he need to kill everyone who participated in any way? Also, shouldn’t God have a better way of dealing with conflict than, you know, murder? 

I would love to tell you that I found a compelling way to square my discomfort with this particularly gruesome act. I could highlight that Korach was someone who was already actively benefiting from the hierarchical power structures of the community. He was the grandson of Kehat, and so had the honor of carrying the Holy Ark on his shoulders and performing songs in the Tabernacle. I could argue that if he truly wanted a more egalitarian system, he could have started by being willing to relinquish his own power in addition to questioning Moses. I could tell you that he was a proto-populist who was simply using discontent and the language of equality to grab for power — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a compelling case for this reading just a few years ago. Alternatively, we could agree with the consensus in Pirkei Avot, and say that it wasn’t the act of questioning Moses, but the act of engaging in a dispute that wasn’t ‘for the sake of heaven’ that earned Korach and his followers their fate. There are plenty of apologetics we could construct together.

I would like to invite you not to do that. It is certainly important to spend time putting our stories and traditions in their historical contexts, and there are likely plenty of cultural, social, and political reasons why our parsha uses this narrative form. But, it’s also important to see and name moments when power, as we understand it, is abused. Especially when those abuses are foundational elements of our tradition. I understand that this is hard tension to hold. 

It requires that we admit that we have an imperfect history, an imperfect tradition, and based on this parsha, perhaps an imperfect God. Yet, even in this imperfect, problematic parsha, I believe we still can find something of value. After Korach and the rest were killed, God tells Moses how the fire pans that the 250 men used should be recycled. God says, ‘[Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the LORD, they have become sacred.’ 

In that instruction, God implies that any offering to God, even one made in grave sin, is still holy and cannot be simply thrown away. This is true even though the pans have been marred by the charred remains of these men. It is true even though God deemed these men to have erred so badly that she ended their lives. The implication of this seems to be that nothing is wasted. That even our misguided attempts or simply mal-intended attempts at holiness can be used and made into something. Perhaps even this error of God’s is not wasted because it shows us a living, growing version of the divine, and provided the impetus to tell a story that included this small nugget of value. This year, the idea that nothing is wasted, that even grave errors can be made to serve a purpose, gives me direction. Because — at the risk of making this sound like a Yom Kippur dvar — we have gone astray in so many ways.

Most of us have been complicit in white supremacy by our own inaction or limited action, and that complicity has meant that untold numbers of people of color — people with just as much of a connection to the divine as any of us — have died. Since today is Pride, I’ll note that we as a queer community — and this includes me — have been complicit. We have too often centered a select few, usually cis/white/gay/respectable looking and seeming folks at the expense of so many others. 

And yet, perhaps these mistakes — big, small, and in between —  can still be made into something of use, perhaps even something holy. This month, there was a Black Trans Lives matter protest in New York. Mainstream news organizations have started to cover the systemic violence that black transwomen of color face. We’ve seen protests all over the country in solidarity with the black lives matter movement, and we have seen bail funds — including Chicago’s own — find so much support that they’ve started sending donors to other organizations. It is unprecedented and awe inspiring, and I invite you to really saturate yourself with the fullness of the realization that real change, real progress is being made. 

And, as you do that, I also invite you to do something that might be less intuitive. Take a moment to really feel what the costs of this progress have been. To feel the cost of so many lost lives and potential futures. To imagine what it feels like, what it takes, to live in and navigate systems that are not meant to let you thrive. Some of us do not need to imagine because we know that feeling in some intimate way. 

It’s hard work to hold these competing realities at once. And, to be clear, it is something that I constantly fall short of doing. I still want to dig in. To focus on Korach’s claim that he believes in the inherent and equal holiness of each person, or the commentary’s decision that he was simply a man desperate for more power for the sake of power. I still find my ego constantly grabbing for the steering wheel, pushing me to simply defend myself, my tradition, and my people in the face of discomfort. A visceral part of me would rather put on armor than do the hard work of learning and listening openly, of acknowledging that — whatever my intention — I have done harm. It’s doubly hard to hold that I have done harm and still might be a good person still capable of holiness. 

Still, I try to settle into that discomfort, and invite you to settle into that discomfort, because it can be a guide. There is no path to truth, justice, or true inclusion that doesn’t require that we wade through complexity that challenges us, and if we let it, changes us. Today, on this day of Pride and Peace, I hope that you and I will each have the courage to be changed. Shabbat shalom.

This drash was first delivered on June 27, 2020 during Saturday Morning Shabbat Services.

Ash Levine is a long(ish) time Mishkanite. He is transmasculine, a soon-to-be social work student, and current-time policy researcher. In his free time, he is cooking, reading Tamora Pierce books, and/or participating in some adult learning at Mishkan. He recently participated in the conversion cohort and b’mitzvah classes at Mishkan.