Thank you to Ziva for this wonderful d’var Torah. We look forward to hearing you teach on Korach again next year!

Lessons from Korah: When to Speak, When to Listen, When to Act.

I converted to Judaism one year ago (in the Hebrew calendar). During my bet din, one of the rabbinic court asked me what was next for me spiritually which surprised me because I had not thought at all about what would happen after the bet din and mikvah ceremony. I replied that I wanted to adorn the sanctuary and make the Torah stories my own. I really didn’t even know what I meant by “making the stories my own” until, just a few short weeks later I realized that I was seeing far more in the stories than I ever had before and was glimpsing aspects of the characters that had gone un-noticed before. At first I thought it was just because they had become more familiar until I realized the same was true of everything I was reading. It was as if a scrim had been removed from the written word for me. I was surprised, even shocked. I have been a voracious reader all of my life, always focusing first on the narrative line and discovering only upon re-reading books that the characters came alive for me and revealed the motivations that inspired or destroyed them and sometimes not even then. But I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I should do in response to this experience except enjoy it. Then, after hearing a deeply personal, beautiful, and insightful d’var by Diana Brewer (or Simcha) just a few weeks after her own conversion to Judaism, I decided I would prepare a d’var Torah each year based on my conversion parsha, Korah. This is the first.

So to Korah, at least the first few verses. Korah and 250 of his followers challenged Moses’ leadership by disputing his role as the spiritual leader of the Israelites and Aaron as High Priest. As a result of this defiance, Korah, his 250 followers, their households (including wives, concubines, servants and children) were swallowed up in the earth. As a further demonstration of God’s power, Aaron and 12 chieftains from the ancestral houses gathered up their staffs together and the next day Aaron’s staff was flowering, indicating divine intervention. So God’s reaction to defiance was first destructive and then creative. Interesting, in the coming months I’m going to see if this pattern continues, but that is for another day!

My first reaction to the parsha was that God’s actions seemed disproportionate to Korah’s offense, especially when you consider how many people were destroyed and how those watching must have been affected, even traumatized through witnessing their destruction. I started to think about Korah and what his motives were to see if that would help me to understand such a harsh punishment. In reading commentary, there seem to be at least two dominant schools of thought. One is that Korah was jealous of Moses’ position and authority and may even have doubted Moses’ special relationship with God. The second, minority opinion, is that he yearned to be closer to God by entering the holy of holies along with or in place of Aaron. Two very different reasons for the challenge to Moses’ leadership. One might think that the reason behind the motivation was important and might have changed the outcome. I am not so sure that is the case. Whether it was pride or longing, Korah’s downfall began with desire, a desire for something different than the role that had been allotted to him. He was coveting Moses’ role or Aaron’s role, thus violating the 10th commandment “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male of female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s”. I and many commentators find this commandment the most interesting in some ways because it is the only commandment that speaks to one’s thoughts and feelings (including desire) rather than one’s deeds. It is also the only commandment whose observance is between us and God. All of the other commandments tell us to do something or not do something. Other people can witness our observation or disobedience of the other commandments, but not this one. Who can know our thoughts except ourselves? Rav Eliyahu of Vilna (The Vilna Gaon) said “Desires must be purified and idealized, not exterminated”. This seems to acknowledge that desires will always exist but we have the ability to influence where they lead.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Korah’s motives, his desires, were more selfless than selfish, that his reasons for doubting Moses arose from a genuine concern that Moses was an ineffective leader in some way and that his lack of leadership was having a negative effect not just on Korah but on the welfare of the Israelites as a whole. Let’s say Korah had some ideas that might improve things. What were Korah’s options? He could have had a quiet, respectful, and deferential conversation with Moses. Stated his position and then let it rest. If that had been the case, the commandment would not have been violated. But Korah did not stop there. In his own thoughts, he built a story of what could and should be different. He probably mulled it over and over in his mind. We are still assuming that Korah was concerned for the welfare of all the Israelites, not his own self interest. So far, he is an OK guy, maybe a little frustrated, maybe a little annoyed. Probably, he has stopped listening to the people that think Moses is just great. Now he is approaching the danger zone. Now he is beginning to think he could do better. A violation of the commandment but one that only affects him since it stays in his own mind. He might be in trouble with God, but no one else knows about his transgression yet. God and Korach will “settle up” on Yom Kippur.

Now let’s say that Korah sat down one night and talked with his wife about what was troubling him. As she listened, did she agree or disagree? Did she remain silent? I tend to think that Korah’s wife knew his thoughts and made no attempt to intervene, thus playing a part in his downfall. She is not mentioned in the parsha and was swallowed up in the earth with all the others. Another wife did take action and thus saved her husband, herself, and her household and she is mentioned (On’s wife).

Now Korah talked with his close friends and they agreed with him or maybe he had to persuade them to take his side, support his point of view. Maybe one of them had a grudge against Aaron or Moses. Maybe one of them was afraid of freedom and longed to return to Egypt where the Israelites were slaves but everyone knew what to expect. Maybe the uncertainty of what was happening was too frightening and mitzrayim seemed better than the desert.

Maybe, after talking his concerns over with his family and some of his friends, they began to agree with him and they spoke with their friends and so on and so on. Maybe they forgot or didn’t realize that their wives and concubines, servants and children all listened in their tents to these whispers. Whispers are always compelling. They entice us to listen closely or entice us to turn away. Maybe some of the Israelites heard and were compelled to lean forward and listen, and then pass the whispers on, a little louder, to just a few more people.

So, now there are 250 people who are behind Korah and they are openly disagreeing with Moses. Just speaking, not doing anything, at least not in the parsha although the Mishnah embellishes the narrative in some interesting ways. When they do act, they do as Moses instructs them: to appear before the Ark with their fire pans. This is the first action that takes place and ultimately leads to their doom.

So what do I glean from this? The first is that our thoughts matter and have effects not just on ourselves but on others. How many of us talk to ourselves either silently or aloud, listing errors we perceive in others, begrudging and, yes, coveting their accomplishments or possessions? Their job? Our thoughts become a well worn path. Even if we never share them with anyone else, they narrow our thinking, taking us to a personal mitzrayim, a narrow place that becomes narrower and narrower with time, trapping us within the confines of our own discontent. These kinds of repetitive thoughts dig a groove in our unconscious and conscious minds, crowding out other thoughts and experiences that are life affirming and appreciative of the glory of the world and the beauty in our lives.

But rarely do these thoughts remain inside our heads, which brings me to my second observation. Thoughts translate into speech. Whatever we say to ourselves we generally say to others. We may not say everything to everyone but the intimate conversations we share with our family and close confidantes may be overheard or repeated by others. So now they join us on the well worn path. If the thoughts we speak are jealous, the path is narrow and dark. If the thoughts that we share are joyful, the path widens and glows with light. Our thoughts determine which it will be. So examining and sometimes wrestling with our thoughts is important not just for our own well being and connection to the Divine (by which I mean our soul’s best attributes) but to others as well. What we think matters and what we say matters. The longings of our hearts, the thoughts within our minds, they all matter. And our speech matters. God created the world through speech, what could be more powerful than that?

In her incredibly beautiful interpretation if Nishmat Kol Hay, Marge Piercy captures this essential truth in one verse:

“We are given the wind within us, the breath to shape into words that steal time, that touch like hands and pierce like bullets, that waken truth and deceit, sorrow and pity and joy, that waste precious air in complaints, in lies, in floating traps for power on the dirty air. Yet holy breath still stretches our lungs to sing”.

Sooner or later, our thoughts and speech will translate into action. For Korah, his certainty that he was right led him and all his followers to challenge Moses in front of the entire community in front of the holy of holies. And they and all those dependent upon them died. Obliterated for all time? Perhaps. But the sons of Korah appear again in the Torah, perhaps as a reminder to us that people like Korah appear from time to time. Literature is full of these characters. Shakespeare’s Iago, whispering in the dark with Othello listening, and Desdemona lost. Asimov’s The Mule, who has the power to reach into people’s minds and alter their emotions leaving their personalities, memories and systems of logic unchanged.

Perhaps the descendants of Korah remind us that we can all be like Korah, coveting that which is not ours to have. Freud claimed that we are all jealous in some way of one another. We all have the capacity to doubt and covet. When the descendants of Korah re-appear they are reminders to us of the risk and reward we face when we pursue our thoughts down a well worn path, when we seek to influence or follow others, when we translate speech into action. Think back to a time when you were sure you were right and you spoke before examining your thoughts or wrestling with your desires and the impact it had on the people who agreed with you and the innocent bystanders that didn’t even know what was at stake. I can think of times in my own life when I have been too quick to speak and landed in a pit of despair as I damaged relationships, hurt people I loved, and ultimately wounded my own soul. These scars don’t heal for anyone although we can hope that, as with Aaron’s staff, creation follows destruction.

So how do we avoid or at least minimize these experiences in our lives? How do we cultivate habits that protect us and the world from thoughts that arise? How do we avoid Korah’s doom? It takes discipline. To notice when we set off on a path where all we can think and feel is our discontent. To remember that there are other ways to think and that the way we think and what we say matters to the world.

It takes discernment, because sometimes we have something important to say. Sometimes we hear something that is not right, that requires direct action and speaking up in ways that are selfless, that right wrongs, that lift up the helpless. Sometimes, we need to listen to whispers in the dark and sometimes we need to turn away. How do we cultivate discernment of knowing which path we will take each day?

For me, a daily habit is needed. I meditated for many years in the morning until the thoughts in my mind took over and I could only think them, not notice them, or examine them much less stop, or change them. I needed some new thoughts and habits. What helps me now is prayer:

Shema, Israel. Listen. Hear. We are all connected, all part of the divine, all an equally important piece of creation. What we hear and what we say has the ability to create or destroy.

The morning prayers remind us of things we take for granted: the earth beneath us, the breath within us, the life we have been given with all its joys and sorrows.

Shema, Israel. These are the thoughts to listen to. Speak them aloud. Even when things are really, really hard and we are frightened or alone or despairing, we can find something to be grateful for. We can find something to say that is kind and shares the wisdom of our heart. We can choose to remain silent when we should and speak when we must. Years ago, before I knew I was Jewish, I wrote this poem which is much like a prayer:

Sit Every Day

Sit every day.
Shed the skin of lives not your own so that you may feel the day in all its pains and pleasures.

Do not dull your pain or hide from it, rather embrace the wisdom at the heart of it.

Find your true path and follow it as you would the North Star. Your compass is your own and will guide you if you only have faith and hope and love.
For your heart is wise even when your soul is lost in the dark.

I am so grateful to have found my true path and I know my north star is Torah. My thoughts may still take me into darkness, but remembering the Shema brings me back to a path of wisdom and discernment that what I think and do and say matters to the world.

So, back to the beginning at the beit din a year ago? The second thing I said to the beit din was that I wanted to adorn the sanctuary. I choose to adorn it with my silence and my speech, choosing carefully what is most called for in every given moment.

Shabbat Shalom