June 20, 2020 – Korach

Shabbat Message from Rabbi Rosenberg

This Shabbat we celebrate Pride and we celebrate Juneteenth, the day when the slavery of our black brothers and sisters officially ended in the United States. Our textbooks tell us that slavery ended on January 1, 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed months before. But it didn’t really. In the state of Texas, slaves had not been freed. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 (2 ½ years later and months after the Civil War ended) when Union army general Gordon Granger read federal orders in the city of Galveston, Texas, proclaiming that all enslaved persons in the U.S. state of Texas were now free. Juneteenth celebrates that day. It celebrates the promise of equality for all citizens of the United States. Juneteenth and Pride are moments of celebration – but let us not think that our work is finished.

This week we read from Parashat Korach. Korach is a Levite, a priest, who challenges Moses and Aaron authority: “Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation? What makes you so special?” He takes this challenge further toward rebellion, amassing a large group of Levites to stand with him. Moses seems stunned by the challenge and rebellion and ultimately it is God who punishes Korach and his followers.

So often when I think of Korach it is negative. He challenges, he pushes against authority and the text is silent regarding why he does so. Is he challenging authority because he doesn’t appreciate Moses’ leadership and believes he could do better if he were in charge? Or is he truly challenging the set-up of the overall community, asking, “Why does all the power sit with just Moses and Aaron – when according to God’s promise in Exodus at Mt. Sinai, we all will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation – not just the Kohanim and the Levites!

While many of the rabbinic commentators see Korach as a rebel and a rabble rouser, there are others who understand his point and recognize that he is trying to push forward the idea that the community needs to be inclusive so that power and most importantly the teaching and transmission of Torah isn’t just limited to a few people but rather to the community, the people, as a whole! And yet, these rabbis suggest that Korach was a man ahead of his time, but the people, the Israelite society wasn’t yet ready. Think about it, they’re in the desert, they are still arguing with Moses and with one another, even the spies couldn’t agree and allowed their fear rather than their faith to guide them – so how are they acting like a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? Korach is motivated and focused on all the right things, but what he doesn’t recognize is that the community first has to deal with all of their brokenness – they have to deal with their fears, with their doubt, with their lack of trust in one another and even God. Korach’s aspirations are holy, it is his lack of awareness of the effort still needed for the community to become that which he aspires to.

Today we stand at a moment of rebellion and challenge in our country. Like Korach, these voices are saying, “Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation? What makes you so special?” These voices are calling out to us, asking us to listen, to hear, to step into this rebellion, to challenge our assumptions and biases, to learn our country’s history – all of it, and to help, in whatever way we can, to make the necessary change to ensure that all people, all human beings in our country, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and religion are treated equal.

Perhaps Korach’s time has arrived, a time when our world, our country, is ready to finally embrace the promise that all of us can be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation;” and this can only be achieved when we are willing to do the hard work to make it so. As our tradition teaches, “pray as if everything depends on God, but act and do as if everything depends on you.”

May this Shabbat inspire us and renew us in our sacred task of being partners with God making this world as perfect as we possibly can.
Shabbat Shalom!!

Please join me tonight to celebrate Pride and Juneteenth. I am excited to welcome our own Gerlad Freeman to the bimah to offer words of celebration and inspiration!

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