Monday, June 27, 2016

Parashat Korach 5776 - You Say You Want a Revolution

Echoes of Eden
      Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Korach 5776
You Say You Want a Revolution

The time was ripe for a power grab: The frightful report of the spies and the unequivocal sentence handed down were still ringing in the peoples’ ears; the Promised Land never seemed farther away. The strategy was simple: Foment unrest, and stage a takeover. The tactics employed were cynical: Collect the disheartened, and create the facade of a united opposition. The message was populist: “All the people are holy.” (B’midbar 16:3). The results were disastrous: Death and even greater despair. The leader of this uprising was none other than Moshe’s own cousin, Korach.
What may have seemed like a unified revolt was more like a chimera, an impossible confederation between Korach, from the tribe of Levi, a trio of Reuvenites, and a larger group of other men, presumably all firstborn sons who, like the Reuvenites, considered themselves wrongly displaced priests: Until very recently, it would have been the firstborn sons who would have been the kohanim, religious and political leaders who served God in the newly-built Mishkan. Members of the tribe of Reuven, the eldest of Yaakov’s sons, as well as the firstborn sons of other families, forfeited this honor through poor judgment and sin; the Levites were appointed in their stead.
Korach was both power-hungry and an opportunist; in addition, he was a first class manipulator. He was well aware of the heartfelt disappointment of those who had been passed over, and set out to use it to his advantage. In what may have seemed an act of historic reconciliation, he, a member of one of the most illustrious families of the very tribe that had displaced the firstborn, reached out to form a coalition with them. As the new kohanim, and the stewards of the Mishkan, the Levites were more than simply those chosen to replace the firstborn who had sinned; they were actually complicit in what Korach must have described as Moshe’s greatest act of “infamy,” his call to wipe out the perpetrators of the sin of the golden calf. Foremost among those perpetrators were the firstborn; the people who sprang into action and carried out Moshe’s order to kill the sinners were from the tribe of Levi – arguably, even Korach himself had taken sword in hand. To make matters even worse, Korach pointed out, there was one guilty party in the golden calf debacle who had gotten off “scot free:” Moshe’s brother Aharon seems to have benefitted unduly from his family connections; Aharon, then, was the weak link on Moshe’s team.
Korach argues that the firstborn, despite their sin, are still holy. This statement, coming from a member of the privileged clan of Levi, had tremendous impact on those who felt wronged. Charmed by his words and seduced by his apparent sincerity and empathy for their loss, two hundred and fifty men mobilized to shore up Korach’s rebellion.
Yet the two other heads of this three-headed monster cannot be easily reconciled with one another. If Korach himself will become the new high-priest, how does this help the three Reuvenites who stood shoulder to shoulder with Korach? If they are to reclaim the role of the kohanim for their tribe, where does that leave the firstborn sons of the other tribes?
The person who saw through the deception and realized that Korach’s words were no more than demagoguery was the wife of one of the original conspirators, On, son of Pelet - a man who is not only a hapax legomenon but a complete mystery in terms of his disappearance. As the rebellion takes shape, Korach bands together with Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet - all from the tribe of Reuven. And yet, as the rebellion unfolds, On seems to vanish. In the final act, all the other co-conspirators perish, while On is never heard from again.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b-110a) fills in the details of On’s disappearance, and identifies On’s wife as the heroine of this cautionary tale. On’s wife sees that Korach is taking advantage of the feelings of guilt, frustration and loss that are running rife among the firstborn men. She understands immediately that Korach is making cynical use of their anguish, and using them as pawns in his own game. She understands that although Korach, too, feels he has been slighted, allowing him to feign empathy for the others, he will not hesitate to cast his allies aside when his own desires are fulfilled. She sees that the endgame is poorly conceived and unrealistic; the chimera really has only one head, and that is Korach; the others are being played. Mrs. On spells it out for her idealist husband: “You will never be the leader. You have only one choice to make: Will you follow Moshe, or Korah?” “My ‘comrades’ will soon be here to collect me, so that we may march together in protest,” he worries. She gives him a drink, puts him to bed, and says, “I will take care of this.”
Knowing that the battle cry of this revolution is “Everyone is holy,” (16:3) she stands at the entrance to their tent and brushes her uncovered hair. The other rebels arrive; upon seeing a married woman’s uncovered hair, they quickly turn around and walk away rather than cast their eye on such immodesty. These “holy” people were willing to rebel against Moshe, to slander Aharon, to cast aspersions on those chosen by God Himself, and to undermine the faith of the entire nation – but they were not willing to look at a married woman’s hair.
This Talmudic passage gives full expression to Korach’s manipulation and to the tragic gullibility of his followers. Korach convinces them that they are as holy, if not more holy, than Moshe and Aharon. He convinces them that they should be the ones to don the clothing of the kohen. He convinces them to take incense in hand and approach the Mishkan – despite the fact that even bona fide kohanim who brought incense when not specifically commanded to do so had perished in the Sanctuary. And like Nadav and Avihu, the 250 faux-kohanim perish. Korach, Datan and Aviram, who sent their duped followers to their deaths, do not make that mistake. They never put on the clothing of the kohen, nor do they bring incense; they know what the consequences will be.
In fact, for these three men, the entire charade had very little to do with holiness; that was merely the bait they used to lure in their supporters. For Korach, Datan and Aviram, the rebellion had been about leverage and power from the very start. They hoped that Moshe would retire in order to preserve unity. They expected that this modest, selfless public servant would retreat, and take Aharon with him.
Korach, Datan and Aviram had a very different agenda than the other participants in the rebellion, and different fates awaited them. The two hundred and fifty men who joined Korach in a desperate and misguided attempt to serve God had been led astray by a man who sought glory, power, honor – not holiness. This naïve but misguided group truly sought holiness, and like Nadav and Avihu, they were consumed by a fire that came from God. They departed in a blaze, like a sacrifice on the altar. Korach, Datan and Aviram, on the other hand, sunk into ignominy. They fell into a never-ending abyss.
Only one of the conspirators lived through this episode: On, the son of Pelet, was saved by his wife’s keen insight and decisive action. She understood Korach’s strategy, and saw through his tactics. She understood the tragic, warped piety of the firstborn men who joined the rebellion, men who saw themselves as holier than Aharon, holier even than Moshe - so holy that they could be stopped in their tracks by a few strands of hair.
For more in depth study see:

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Audio and Essays Parashat Korach

Audio and Essays Parashat Korach

New Echoes of Eden Project:
You Say You Want a Revolution

Pararshat Korah: Anatomy of a Breakdown #Torah
What was it that drove Korah crazy? And what brought him to form a confederacy with these specific co-conspirators

Law and Narrative
An analysis how the law and narrative in the Book of Bamidbar compliment one another

How a minor private conversation escalated to a full fledged rebellion

Avoiding Arguments - Not to be like Korach
Analysis of the law – to avoid arguments

Living the Dream; Ignoring Reality


A Jealous Guy
Collateral Damage


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Parashat Sh’lach - Seeing Through Wine-Colored Lenses

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Sh’lach
Seeing Through Wine-Colored Lenses

It was not supposed to happen this way: A group of scouts was sent to see the Promised Land, presumably to bring back a glowing report that would set the Israelites  on their way into the Land of Israel. Instead, the report was devastating, and the people took it in the worst possible way. Rather than preparing to enter the Land, they were now forced to prepare for a new reality: Life in the foreseeable future would be a nomadic existence, and their ultimate goal would remain beyond their grasp.

And then, as the disappointing story of the spies comes to an end, the Torah moves on; new laws are imparted, in a seeming “return to business as usual.”

The interplay between narrative and law in the book of B’midbar is fascinating. Generally speaking, the book as a whole is comprised of narrative (as opposed to Vayikra, which is almost completely devoid of narrative and consists almost entirely of law). However, the laws that do appear in B’midbar are not randomly placed, inserted merely to break up the narrative; the laws in B’midbar actually seem to be part of the story, and in certain cases may provide commentary and insight. Thus, the law that immediately follows the episode of the spies:

God spoke to Moshe, and said: Speak to the People of Israel and say to them: When you come to the homeland which I am giving to you… (B’midbar 15:1-2)

The message is unmistakable: Despite the setback, all is not lost. God is moving forward, and He is speaking about the day the punishment will be over. Despite the sin of the spies and the people’s collusion in that sin, the Land of Israel has not been forfeited; it is still our homeland. Even now, as they suffer through the consequences of their lapse of faith, as they wander the desert, the Land of Israel remains their birthright. The message continues:

You will present fire offerings to God. They may be burnt offerings, or other sacrifices, either for a general or specific pledge, or for your festivals. Taken from the cattle or smaller animals, they shall create a fragrance that is pleasing to God. (Bmidbar 15:3)

Despite the bleakness of their present situation, God assures them that they will one day have a Temple in Israel in which they will celebrate, bring offerings, and behave in a manner that will be pleasing to Him. The Torah then provides some very specific information about these future offerings, which will include wheat meal, olive oil, and libations of wine. (15:4-5)

This list of offerings does not come as a surprise to us; the Land of Israel is described as a land that flows with milk and honey, as well as “a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and honey-[dates].” (D’varim 8:8) Indeed, when the spies arrived in Israel, “they cut a branch and a cluster of grapes, which two men carried on a frame, and they brought of the pomegranates, and of the figs.” (B’midbar 13:23) When they returned to report their findings, they carried the fruit of the land: “We came to the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is its fruit.” (B’midbar 13:27)

The spies saw Israel’s grapes, and they brought back large clusters – so large, in fact, that it took two people to carry each one. Should it have been a surprise that the local inhabitants, whose diet consisted of the oversized fruits of the land, were themselves oversized? Surely, their conclusion should have been that the Land of Israel is indeed a wonderful place. The people should have been thrilled by the knowledge that they, too, would soon be living off the almost magical bounty of the Promised Land, and that their own children would grow big and strong.  Instead, the spies looked only at the physical realities their eyes had seen, and gave no consideration to the spiritual aspects of the land and their connection to it. They were guilty of seeing the future through the lens of the present or the past.

Perhaps this is the underlying message of the laws that immediately follow the episode of the spies. The lesson God teaches with these laws is profound: The future that lies ahead is nothing like the reality of the present. It is a future infused with holiness, with spirituality, not bounded by the mundane, physical constructs that limit the present reality. Look toward the future, He tells them; look ahead to an existence of holiness. The offerings they will bring in the Holy Land are made from wine – and not grapes in their present form. The spies saw only the ‘here and now’, the familiar physical realities of the present. They lost sight of the power that holiness has to transform that mundane reality into something far greater. Like wine, that future reality requires a process; it requires time and patience, faith and trust. This is the message God imparts in these laws. He focuses them on a new perspective of the future.

The spies saw grapes; they were alarmed by the oversized fruits and terrified by the oversized people. Instead, God teaches them to turn their gaze to the future and to see the wine and the holy service of the Beit HaMikdash. Had the spies seen the potential, and not merely the “reality,” they never would have sinned. Had they seen the holiness and not only the mundane, the Israelites’ stay in the desert would have been much shorter. Had they maintained their faith in God’s ability to create a new reality, unlike anything they had experienced in the past, they would have immediately embarked upon the short path to realizing that new reality. Instead, they would have to endure a long and challenging process of maturation in the desert.

The lesson of the juxtaposition of these laws with the episode of the spies is as relevant to us as it was to the generation of the desert: What do we see when we look? Do we see “reality” – which is no more than allowing our eyes to refract the future through visions of the past? Or do we see the future as potential? The lesson of these verses is just this: Seeing the future through lenses colored by holiness allows us to see a completely different reality.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lectures and Essays Shlach

Lectures and Essays Shlach

Seeing Through Wine-Colored Lenses

Giants and Grasshoppers

Constant Toxic Complaints

The Argument for Tekhelet

Spy vs Spy; Haftorah for Shelach


Parshat Shlach 5769 Ye-hoshua

The spies
Have I Got a Land for You! - Parshat Sh’lach

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Parashat B’haalotcha 5776 School’s Out

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat B’haalotcha 5776
School’s Out

Sometimes  unexpectedly, despite the best plans, things go terribly wrong. Parashat B’haalothcha finds the Jews who left Egypt on the way to the Promised Land, but something goes awry, although it is difficult to place our finger on the precise problem or the exact moment it occurred.  

The first ten chapters of the book of B’midbar seem focused and purposeful; the path from Sinai to Israel appears to be charted, and the trip should not be a long one. The Egyptians were vanquished long ago, and the skirmish with Amalek is also behind them. By this point, the people should be ready to take ownership of their ancestral homeland  through their own determination, coupled with Divine assistance. 

Yet something goes terribly wrong: By chapter 11, the Jews seem to be slipping toward moral bankruptcy. They lust for food; they behave like heathen. What happened to the people who stood at Sinai? What happened to the nation that proclaimed in one voice, Na’aseh V’nishmah  ‘We will obey and eagerly listen to the word of God’? 

A number of early Torah commentaries cite a midrashic teaching that describes the Israelites’ departure from Mount Sinai: 

They left happily, like a young child running away from school; they said, ‘(Let us run) lest we receive more commandments.” (As cited in Ramban’s commentary to the Torah, Bamidbar 10:35) 

A cynic might say that they had arrived at the mountain poised to accept Ten Commandments which would forever change their lives, and now, one year later, the number of commandments was in the hundreds - and constantly rising. At their first opportunity, they take off, happy to leave the mountain of law, happy to be free. This would explain their immediate obsession with mundane matters: They had had their fill of holiness. 

In truth, this cynical description of the commandments is superficial, at best. The “Ten Commandments” are more accurately described as the “ten categories” of Jewish Law; the commandments that are enumerated subsequently are the particulars, the individual statutes that comprise each category, the nuts and bolts of Jewish practice that give substance to the categories and concepts we received at Mount Sinai. Nonetheless, the Midrash expresses the mindset of the people: They seem overwhelmed; inundated with holiness. Yes, they knew that “serving God on this mountain” was the reason they were liberated from Egypt in the first place. And yes, they knew what they had committed to when they had agreed to be ‘a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.’ It seems, though, that they had not anticipated or fully thought out the overwhelming degree to which holiness would dictate their lives. Now that they had begun to implement the commandments, holiness had become more of a burden than they had imagined it would be. 

The scene painted by the Midrash of the Israelites’ flight from Mount Sinai poses a question that is just as relevant today: How are we supposed to walk away from Sinai? How do we take leave of any point of holiness, be it one demarcated by space or by time? How do we part from Shabbat, from holidays, from synagogues, or from the Land of Israel? 

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Midrash was the happiness they felt. Leaving holiness, despite the restrictions it places on us or the pressure we may feel to live up to its additional requirements, should be tinged with sadness, and not joy. Quite the opposite: The arrival of a holy day should bring us joy, and not the cessation of holiness. Often, our departure from a state of heightened holiness is unavoidable; all holidays must come to an end, just as every Shabbat must necessarily have a motzei Shabbat. Nonetheless, many of our customs aim to help us focus on the sadness we should feel as the holiness of the day ebbs away: Havdalah is designed to help us ease our way from the holiness of Shabbat and festivals back to weekday existence. Similarly, it is our custom to leave the synagogue (and the Western Wall) without turning our backs to the place of holiness, but rather to take at least three steps backward before fully disconnecting from the holiness that lies within. If we must leave, we do so with a degree of sadness or longing.  Places or times of holiness should hold a dear and central place in our hearts. 

Here, then, is when things began to slide off track: As the Israelites took leave of Mount Sinai, a place of immense holiness, they should have taken three steps back, to plant the holiness of that unique place and time deep in their hearts before turning around to face their next destination of holiness, the Land of Israel. Instead, they turned and ran from Sinai, ran away from the holiness, and became unworthy of the holiness that awaited them in Israel. Because they turned their backs, literally and figuratively, the Land of Israel slips further and further out of reach. The generation that ran away from the holiness of Mount Sinai was incapable of running towards the holiness of the Land of Israel. An entire generation would have to pass before they would ready to approach the Holy Land.  
For a more in-depth analysis see: 

Echoes of Eden