The Korach Tale Speaks to Us, Too

We sometimes read the Bible as if it’s simply a collection of stories from long ago. There were some strange things that happened then and strange people who did them.

We tend to think we live in different times, more sophisticated times. And we sometimes think the problems of yesteryear are not relevant to us today.

I want to propose that God did not give us these eternal words in order that we come to that conclusion. The challenges for characters in the Bible are as much ours as they were theirs.

This week we read the troubling story of Korach in Numbers, along with special verses from Isaiah. Having experienced the many evils of the 20th century and the growing terror and division in our own times, we are hardly exempt from the exercise of tackling and understanding this text. Rather, it ought to be mandatory!

Korach was a quintessential demagogue. He came from an advantaged position and wanted yet a greater position with more power. He affiliated with the unstable and ambitious to overthrow Moses and other God-designated, God-serving leaders. He used crowd-pleasing words of the people’s mission as his own rallying cry, cynically bringing them to his side. And he attacked the leadership of the community when it was at its most vulnerable and his chance of taking it down was the strongest.

Have we not seen this story throughout history? Do we not see elements of it in our own lives today – whether through actual demagogues in the world or contentious and destructive behavior in certain would-be or actual leaders in our own communities and nation?

As the Bible teaches, the actions of Korach and his followers are thoroughly despicable to God. Korach is fundamentally out for personal gain and glory, not what’s in the best interest of heaven or the community. Especially when times are hard for people, we should never tolerate the self-seeking and ambitious pretender who preys upon our weakness to get power.

The Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, teaches that such a person who makes the right left and the left right lays waste the world. With God’s help, it is our duty to separate ourselves from Korach in whatever form we find him, oppose him, and defeat him.

How timely, then, is this week’s Isaiah text that comes our way. The prophet stresses what God cares about greatly in the world. “It is to this that I look: the poor and the broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word.” It is their “gladness” that the Divine promotes, principally through protecting them from others, who for the sake of self-glorification, hate them and seek to cast them out. In other words, the God who stands for the innocent and the good against the oppressor is the same God who stands with Moses against Korach.

Having studied this lesson, we might be tempted zealously to implement its lessons quickly and cheaply by labeling our own political opponents as today’s Korach. Of course, that’s just another form of demagoguery, in which we, too, act mainly “for the sake of our own name.” Let’s eschew that temptation.

We should resist the call of emotions that push us to take the easy and selfish path and follow those who would lead us astray. Rather, the text challenges us to probe deeply into the mission God has given us, pursue it, and support those who are truly leading us to its fulfillment.

If we understand this guidance and follow it, we can show that we understand that the Korach tale was written for us, too!

Growing in Strength and Courage

Our portion from Numbers tells the sad tale of spies who go into Canaan to scout the land. We know how it ends. Except for Caleb and Joshua, the spies give a faithless, hopeless report, to which the frightened community succumbs. In response, God decrees that the people will spend forty years in the wilderness and the older generation will die there.

This is a painful account to be sure, and we read it with both a sense of anguish and also a hope somehow that something positive will come of it in future generations.

The extraordinarily beautiful gift in this week’s companion piece from Joshua is that it takes us to the future to see a very positive outcome. It tells a different spy story, one in which the people have clearly grown and become stronger.

Let’s take a look.

Recall that Moses sends the spies, as many sages say, without clear necessity or conviction. He sends one from each tribe, but with no apparent awareness of their strength or capacity to handle the assignment with fidelity and fortitude. Further, he gives them fuzzy directions.

Moses asks them to see if the land is good or bad. To what end? God has promised it is good. What strategic difference could result from this question?

He asks them to take fruit from the land. Why? God has promised it is good. Additionally, it appears that their seeing the rich fruit, which the current inhabitants will surely fight to keep, seems to frighten them as much as it inspires them.

Moses asks the spies to determine whether the inhabitants are strong or weak. This indeed might be crucial to know, but it is so only if it informs the strategy they will use to conquer the land.

The spies explore the land, but only as onlookers, really without plan or purpose. And they achieve little in their exploration, except to become frightened and then come back to frighten the people.

Finally, and crucially, they, except Caleb and Joshua, show no faith in God’s promise to deliver the land.

We know that Moses, our great teacher, leads and grows in amazing ways in his lifetime, and we treasure his leadership. But the denouement to our tale this week comes in how his successor, Joshua, later uses spies in advance of entering the land.

What’s different in the second story?

First, Joshua sends just two spies. And, according to the sages, it’s the tough and resolute Caleb and Pinchas.

The mission of these spies relates strategically and primarily to Jericho, the main target of Joshua’s campaign to win the land. The spies go to the house of the innkeeper, Rahab, with a purposeful plan in that regard.

Whether they knew beforehand that Rahab would help them or successfully rallied her help upon arrival, we don’t know. But, whichever it was, she proved invaluable to their success. She hid them and gave them vital intelligence that the inhabitants of the land were fearful of the Israelites, aware both of God’s miracles on their behalf and their early military victories.

Effective spies also take the step of protecting those who support them. The spies do just that for Rahab and her family.

The spies come back to Joshua with an incredibly valuable report, along with the confidence that they, with God’s help, can win the land. We know when Jericho is taken how important intelligence, strategy, and faith are to the victory.

I can’t help but think of the many ways in which the modern State of Israel has modeled its operations on the spirit of this story. Successful missions – whether by a state or a person – tend to involve living true to its lessons. As with Joshua and his spies, and Israel, all of us can have success by growing in strength and courage.

Shining the Light Forward

The portion from Numbers this week shares with its companion in Zechariah an intense interest in the importance of the Menorah, the lamp stand in sacred space.

Why is the Bible concerned with the people’s appreciation of light and lamps in the Tabernacle? Why does the prophet focus so intensely on the candelabrum of the Second Temple, one that doesn’t yet exist? And why does any of all this matter to us?

Let’s take a look.

First, note the Hebrew word that initiates the discussion when God instructs Moses on how Aaron must approach and treat the lamps. The word, behaalotecha, has so many possible interpretations. It could mean Aaron is supposed to mount the lamps. Or it could mean he is to light them, or ascend them, or come to them, or even bring or offer. Or, it could carry all such meanings.

We talked last week about the significance of “rising up” to serve God and others. The Zohar, a Jewish mystical text, says that making ascent and making good are one and the same here. There appears to be something very important to God about the priests in sacred space (perhaps including the priest in us) coming forward, ascending, and mounting to light the lamps.

Why?

Let’s begin with the light itself and the lamps from which it shines. This light, as we have been taught so often, is a manifestation of the light of God, representative of God’s ways and expectations of us, particularly as to living true to loving-kindness and righteousness, mercy and justice.

As we learn in Genisis, God created light, even before the sun. This light, for people of faith is much more than physical light. We associate it with hope, truth, salvation, and the Divine Self of God. Indeed, it goes even further than that. In God’s image, we are called to be “a light to the nations,” first, by being guided by this light, and, then, through service and mission, by spreading goodness throughout the world.

Yet, the light doesn’t shine without our effort. We are to make the lamps, bring the oil, and light the Menorah – all, because the crucial enterprise of light requires a partnership between God and us, in mutual effort.

In a way, one could say we rise up, seeking, in all these acts, to become the light ourselves.

What does the prophet add to this understanding?

Zechariah recounts a tale of an angel asking him what he saw in a vision. He tells a beautiful account of the Menorah – one made of gold, with seven lamps, and tubes on top of it, near to two olive trees. Uncertain what to make of this, he asks the angel what it means. The angel, foreseeing the day when the Temple would be built, says God is teaching that it will happen, “not by might, not by power, but by My spirit.”

Doesn’t the light of the envisioned Menorah carry this message, too? The power in the light, as we have discussed, comes from the Spirit of God that is inherent to it.

I believe Zechariah would affirm that it is this light that causes us to “sing joyfully and be glad.” It is this light that manifests God’s intention to “dwell in our midst.” And it is this light that will lead us all to that day when “many nations shall join the Lord,” and they “shall be My people.”

With both Aaron and the prophet, we hold to this bold vision and commit ourselves to kindle the lamps in our own sacred space so that they “shine the light forward.”

Going Above and Beyond

This week’s portion from Numbers and its companion text in Judges share an interest in the unusual, ancient practice of Naziriteship. Since becoming a Nazarite is something we no longer do, we are inclined to see these strange words as off-putting and irrelevant.

That would be a mistake.

Let’s take a look at Naziriteship and then explore whether this arcane Biblical model has something new and important to teach us.

Essentially, in those days, one who wanted to make a Nazirite’s vow of living for the sake of God would set oneself apart and abstain from certain activities of normal life while undertaking the vow. He or she would refrain from consuming wine, cutting hair, and touching death. Once the vow was complete, the Nazarite would make an offering and experience a ritual of return to ordinary life.

The story in Judges concerns the announcement by an angel to the wife of Manoach that the son she would bear would be a Nazarite, whose God-blessed purpose in life would be to save Israel from domination by the Philistines. That son, as the tale reveals, would be Samson.

So, what are we to make of these notions and tales? Here are my thoughts.

I believe that we find certain opportunities in our lifetimes to remove ourselves from the normal realities that are ordinary, mundane, and self-oriented. In such periods, we can make and fulfill special vows by which we serve God and others.

In order to be focused and wholehearted in the work of these vows, we may find it necessary to refrain from many ordinary pleasures, such as those represented by the symbols here of intoxication and fixation on fashion (or, today, Facebook?). Such devotion would require we be fully oriented to life, and never diverted to death, especially in all the spiritual and psychological forms death can take.

Today, what such vows could we make? We might, for example, choose to engage in deep study and learning for a designated period of time, forswearing and abstaining from the ease and distraction of normal forms of gratification. We might devote ourselves to re-forming and re-orientating ourselves in fundamentally healthier physical and spiritual directions. We might develop and go on missions of service to our fellows, for the sake of God.

While it may not be our way to become monks, aloof and separate generally, we may very well seek greater holiness by a temporary separation and the dedication of ourselves during such time to the fulfillment of extraordinary commitments to God. These periods could become the “above and beyond” chapters of our lives.

It is not by accident that I use words of uplift to characterize the lessons we draw from Nazariteship. Take a look at the Hebrew.

Our Torah portion this week is called Naso. While its first words direct Moses to take a sum of the people, the word, naso, more deeply means to lift or to raise up. And “raising up” is the common theme of the whole portion. We encounter raising the heads of those that are counted, lifting up of the tabernacle, raising the status of the priests, and elevating the status of the tribal leaders to make special offerings.

The word nazir, itself, may derive from nezer, which means crown. As we read in one of these verses describing the Nazirite, “the crown of God is on his head.”

So, by all means, let’s look for those times in our lives when we can separate ourselves and be lifted up, in duty and loyalty, to serve in special ways. Even in modern times, perhaps we, like the Nazirites of old, will find ourselves crowned for the making and fulfilling of vows that help work God’s will in the world.

What Counts the Most

This week we read in Numbers that God asked Moses to “take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel” through a variety of head counts. In Hosea, we learn that “the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be numbered nor counted.”

How do we move from the requirement of being counted to becoming numberless? And what does that mean?

Here are my thoughts.

As the people approached the wilderness (indeed, as we each approach our own form of wilderness), counting is crucial. Our ancestors numbered men, priests, and money. We count all the physical features and assets that give us the strength to defend ourselves, and the capacity to work a worthy will in the world.

We, also, count and protect our spiritual assets that serve the soul and meet inner needs.

Put another way, and in both senses of the word, we count so that we count, as individuals and community alike, and we are all counted as people with the potential to properly organize our God-given lives.

Coming to live in God’s ways, the prophet seems to say, is what makes people “the Children of the Living God.” This is an especially important insight for people (all of us) who stray from the right path, for it is a return to such living that brings people back together, with each other, and with God.

Amazingly, Hosea shows us there’s even more. He goes deeper into the concept of right living to teach explicitly what it includes and what difference it makes.

The prophet does so simply by describing the vows that our Partner has made with us: “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving kindness and compassion. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Eternal.”

These ways – righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion, all on the foundation of faith – are what count the most. Indeed it will be when the people of the whole world practice them that “the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea,” so purposeful and so plentiful as to be incapable of being numbered.

At that time, in the words of the lovely hymn,

“All the world shall come to serve Thee

And bless Thy glorious Name,

And Thy righteousness triumphant

The islands shall acclaim…

And all their congregations

So loud Thy praise shall sing,

That the uttermost peoples hearing,

Shall hail Thee crowned King.”

Ways to True Happiness

I love that a verse from the Prophets this week closely resembles the first words in the Psalms. There must be an important idea here. Let’s give it a close look and delve into its significance.

“Blessed are those who trust in God. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sinking its roots in a stream, and will not notice when the heat comes, its leaves green, not anxious in times of drought, never failing to bear fruit.”

Psalm 1 teaches that such blessed persons are happy.

So, the question is: what do the passages before us, from Leviticus and Jeremiah, teach about the path to blessing and ways to happiness?

First, worshipping the work of our hands is incompatible with trust in God. We are, yes, to work hard and enjoy the fruit of our labor. But crossing the line to devote most or all of our being to (i.e., worship) the enterprise of the material is wrong. The discussion of “turning the machine off” for the Sabbath and periods of time associated with the Sabbatical and Jubilee years is all about teaching this important lesson. It seems simple, but we so often forget a fundamental truth about blessing and happiness: It’s hard to be truly contented when we are never contented.

Second, the the text emphasizes that we should do what is honorable. Why? It pays off in the end, perhaps in ways we don’t always understand. And being dishonorable tends to deplete us of another attribute of blessing and happiness – a justified feeling of honor. The Biblical simile is powerful: “Those who gain wealth by unjust means are like a partridge hatching eggs it never laid; in the middle of life, their riches will forsake them, and in the end they will be known to be fools.”

Third, we should not let the destitute fall. There are powerful lessons the sages teach on this. Here are a couple: If we let the destitute fall, it is far less possible for them to get up, and it is far less likely that we will help them up. Also, if loving our neighbor as ourselves is the watchword of living in blessing and happiness, we must remember that we, too, could become destitute, and in need of a helping hand ourselves.

The fourth takeaway from our text involves the care we should show for those who labor for us. We’re ALL made in God’s image. We’ve ALL been liberated to serve God. When we act as gods to others, lording our power over them, we have forsaken “the Foundation of Living Waters,” losing our stake in blessing and true happiness.

Fifth, we must give of ourselves, even sacrifice of ourselves, to others and to God to honor and sustain our blessed life and the principles by which it is blessed. A truly happy life doesn’t just happen. We do have God’s gifts and others’ generosity, but our offerings and contributions are an essential piece of the fabric in making a life of blessing.

Sixth, we are to make vows with a whole heart and show care in honoring them. When we pledge of ourselves to others and to God, we must be accountable and follow through. If we are to trust in others and God, they must be able to trust in us. Surely, such trust is part of the streams that flow through a blessed and happy life.

And, seventh, we bear consequences for our actions. There’s no hiding out. Happiness does not tend to be associated, or at least for long, with wrongdoing. While we all err, though, our straying need not lead to ongoing “drought.” Our faith tradition makes a promise: The road of repair and return is always open. Blessing and happiness lie at the end of that road, too.

To paraphrase the reaffirming verse that closes our reading: Guide me and heal me, O Source of blessing and happiness, save me and I will be saved: for You are the One I trust and praise.

The Priest in Each of Us

This week’s portion from Leviticus and its companion in Ezekiel deal mainly with the conduct of priests in the Temple. Except for those who read these verses solely with the hope that the Temple will one day be re-built, most who confront them will doubt their relevance altogether.

I have thoughts that suggest that they’re utterly relevant. So, stay with me!

We know that God’s mission statement for our people of faith is principally that we become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

One could surely understand this mission narrowly and conclude that such a kingdom includes just a few priests and a multitude of followers, and that it applies only when the physical Temple is standing.

Or, one could read it more fundamentally to understand that the Text regarding priests was not just literally applicable in the ancient past or an unknown future, but it also serves a continuing purpose. To hold this view, one may think, at all times, that each of us has an “inner priest” of sorts – a force of conscience or perhaps a “headmaster” of our soul – who helps move our whole being toward a life in tune with our mission.

Without such a view, frankly, we must come to the difficult conclusion that we have been left for two millennia with the grandest of goals and no way of achieving it. On the other hand, if we hold to the view, the Bible remains powerfully alive for us in offering specific ways on how to fulfill the glorious mission we have been given.

Put another way, the Bible’s concepts of holiness have an ongoing vitality through teaching our “inner priest” how to live. Further, they shine a light on these ways of holy conduct, helping extend God’s sovereignty in the world.

Now, friends, I acknowledge I’m engaging here in God-speak. For those made uncomfortable with that, be patient with me. This is the talk of the Bible. But, whatever the language, happily, these ideas lead to lessons that are valuable to all.

With that understanding in place, I want to devote the remainder of the space of this blog to a contemporary reading of the Ezekiel verses that teaches our “inner priest” – in our time – how to help us fulfill God’s expectations.

Basically, the prophet is showing us what it means to live in the Divine presence. In that nearness, our “inner priest,” just like the ancient priest, has the responsibility to help us serve God’s purposes by living in a manner that is supportive of it.

Crucially, this service calls upon the “inner priest” to exercise judgment in ways that lead us to be dutiful to God. Thus, the two great duties – love of God and love of neighbor – come centrally into play, as do related requirements of righteousness, justice, and loving-kindness.

According to Ezekiel, the priest must be fully devoted to life and careful to avoid mixing in all of our dramas and demands in such a way that living in God’s ways is disturbed or otherwise weakened.

As the ancients supported their priests, we must make a hospitable home for our “inner priest,” who guides us in making offerings to God and others. In these ways, we, like our ancestors, express our gratitude, readiness to serve, and obligation to repair and return to God’s path when we stray.

Rabbi Schneerson taught of our inner “high priest” as the innermost aspect and core of our soul, which is permanently bound to God. Seeing the Text’s language on priests in this context, we find deeper, fresher, and relevant truths.