Sermon Saturday Morning
1. Shabbat Shalom
2. The rebellion of Korach is not the only topic in this week’s parsha, but it certainly is the most important part of it. Korach seems to have no real reason for his rebellion. He is a Levite and according to one tradition, he was privileged to carry on his shoulders the Ark. He was a wealthy man; to this day we say that someone who is wealthy is “as rich as Korach”. So we are left with a question. Why did Korach lead a rebellion against Moses and Aaron? He already had wealth, power and honor. What more did he want from life?
3. Aaron, who was Korach’s cousin, was known as a man who loved and pursued peace. He would do everything in his power to bring peace between those who were angry and locked in a feud. According to the Sefat Emet, the first Rebbe of the Gur Hasidim, the reason Aaron was chosen to be the first High Priest was because he gave so much of himself to bringing peace to others. It is said that Aaron made no division between himself and the people he served. But our Parsha begins with the verse “Korach took” that is, he took for himself, he was not acting on behalf of others.
4. This is what prompts the Rabbis of the Talmud to say; “Controversy that is for the sake of heaven will come to fruition. Controversy that is not for the sake of heaven will not.” What is a rebellion “for the sake of heaven”? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. What is a controversy that is “not for the sake of heaven” the controversy of Korach and his colleagues. Hillel and Shammai argued for many years and their arguments went on for several generations among their students. But they were not arguing for personal prestige or to raise money. They argued so that everyone would understand what God requires of them. But Korach only was taking “For himself.” He was only interested in what he planned to get out of his rebellion, no less than the leadership of the entire nation.
5. We hear a lot of talk about rebellions today. There are active rebellions going on in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Sudan and maybe a new one starting in Saudi Arabia where women are protesting to gain the right to drive a car. As you might imagine, Israel and the United States are very concerned about these rebellions. First of all, they could disrupt the flow of oil around the world. It also places the oil in the hands of unknown and untested governments. Are we seeing the beginning of a new era of Arab democracy or will they end up with another dictatorship, maybe worse, maybe better than the one that came before?
6. We American’s like to think about our own rebellion against England. Our war of independence took only a couple of years to end, but it took another ten years for us to settle on a form of government that we have today. It was not an easy process nor was everyone in agreement about what we should do. In the end, we wrote a constitution and somehow it became the foundation of what our democracy is all about. We have every right to be proud of what this country has accomplished, even with all our problems, over the past 230 or so years. But don’t think it came easy. We did fight a civil war, assassinated a number of presidents, and our history is filled with war and scandal. Our democracy is a success but it is also a work in progress.
7. Most other countries who have had rebellions have not fared so well. France followed us with her own rebellion against the French royalty and it started a reign of terror where thousands of people were executed for all kinds of petty treasons. The Russian Revolution in 1917 unleashed a war that put the communists in power for most of the last century. The many revolutions in South America over the past 200 years basically replaced one dictatorship with another. Only recently have some of the South American countries finally found a way to embrace democracy and end the cycle of violence.
8. The British rock band, “The Who” described these kinds of revolutions in the song, “We Won’t Be Fooled Again”:
We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals when they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song
I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
9. If history is any indication, we are not in for an “Arab Spring” of democracy, but a long period of instability. Israel and the United States are justified in moving slowly and carefully in these uncertain times in the Middle East. The rebellion of Korach teaches us that we have to be very careful when it comes to rebellions. We have to know if there is a wider purpose than just one group trying to establish their hegemony over all the other groups.
10. My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman has another lesson for us to learn from Korach and his rebellion. After Korach and his party died, Moses was told to take the firepans used by the rebels and use the metal from the pans to make a bronze plating for the Altar in the Mishkan. It clearly is to be a memorial about what happens when people rebel against God. But there is more to this lesson and to the plating on the altar than just a reminder of a rebellion. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Palestine, says that this plating serves as a reminder to the community of believers, a rebuke to the inevitable corruption that accumulates around faith and religion: the tendency to anthropomorphize; to conceive of God in narrow and unrefined ways; to concentrate on the words and letters of Torah instead of on the thoughts and feelings that it expresses, and on its ultimate moral thrust.”
11. Rabbi Gilman goes on to say, “The plating on the altar, then, is not simply a reminder of Korach’s sin. It is even more a reminder of the sin that lurks in the heart of the pious, within all of us, a perpetual warning that it is not at all clear who is the saint and who is the sinner, that each of us is both saint and sinner, and the line separating the two is very murky indeed.” It seems that the sin of Korach can all too easily be our sin, that we think that we are better than everyone else, we are more pious and our way of doing religion is more correct than what anyone else does. “And the men who spurred us on, sit in judgment of all wrong. They decided and a shotgun sings the song”. We are not better than anyone else. We may be different and we may have other ideas, but we are all saints and sinners and where we stand on the line between these two poles in our hearts will determine if our work is for the sake of Heaven or not.
12. Like everything else in this world, religion can be used for great good or great evil. History has shown us how religion can be a source of knowledge, information, learning, understanding and human advancement. Religion gives us the encouragement to reach out to each other, to help each other along the way and to support each other in our times of distress. But religion has also been used to foster hate, bigotry, war, ignorance and greed. The difference is not in what we believe, but in how we translate that belief into our daily actions. The plating on the altar reminds us that at any moment, our faith can go either way and we have to be vigilant to keep our faith on the right track. We must always remember that when religion is not about love, it is not really religion anymore.
13. Leviticus reminds us that we need to “Love our neighbor as our self. But the Sefat Emet says that if we love God, we will see that our neighbor is our self. We will see ourselves in our neighbor and not hold him or her out as some “other person” who is not worthy of our love. If we love God, we cannot love only ourselves; our hearts have to be open to not just our neighbor, but to all other human beings on the planet. Or perhaps Rabbi Gillman would say that we all have to choose every minute of every day who it is that we love; do we love only ourselves or do we love God and love others as well?
14. We can be saints and we can be sinners. We can follow our inclination to do evil or our inclination to do good. We can be for ourselves and we can be for everyone. Controversy and rebellion are not good or bad in themselves; what makes all the difference is what is inside of us. If we only are interested in taking for ourselves, our controversies will be like the rebellion of Korach, and destined for disaster. If we seek to raise up and improve the lives of all people, those we know and those we do not know, our controversy will be like that of Hillel and Shammai, for the sake of heaven and destined to change the course of history.
Let us keep our minds focused on what is best for the world and may God always support us when we choose to spend our lives working for the good of all people, as we say …
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM