Parashat Korach

June 23, 2023fredi Bleeker Franks

In Parashat Korach, this week’s portion, Moses’ cousin Korach and his followers lead a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach cries out, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”

Korach’s argument is that since all the Israelites were holy, there was no need for Moses and Aaron to be leaders — he was looking for what we might consider a more egalitarian approach. When Moses heard what Korach said, he fell to the ground. God punishes the rebels by opening the ground and swallowing them, effectively burying them and their families alive. The people blame Moses and Aaron for bringing death to the rebels. Once again, God brings a plague on the people. The chief of each tribe deposits his staff inside the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff brings forth sprouts, produces blossoms, and bears almonds. The Kohanim and Levites are established and assigned the responsibility of managing the donations to the Sanctuary.

Parashat Korach is one of my favorite Torah portions, and I sign up to write a WRJ Voices piece on it as often as I can. If the portion is already taken, I often write something in my journal on the parashah. Why? Many years ago, I celebrated my adult Bat Mitzvah, and Parashat Korach was my Torah portion. Each time I write about this portion, some new morsel of text grabs my attention. As it says in Parashat Pirkei Avot, "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.” I have used this parashah to measure my own personal growth and maturity.  

I have always tried to imagine how I might handle the kind of rebellion against my leadership that Moses faced. When I first read this portion oh so many years ago at my Bat Mitzvah, I honed in on punishment. I spoke of leadership in terms of parenting and how parents need to always keep the allusion of control. I said that the rebellious Israelites deserved punishment as a sign to all who would follow that God was not to be trifled with, and by the way, neither were parents. In later years, I wrote about communication with my children, even citing one of my favorite business books, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, co-authored by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler. I recommended that Sisterhood leaders read this book and put its principles into action in their roles as leaders. 

I stand by that recommendation today. 

Even though I believe I have practically committed this parashah to memory, I did my usual research work before I began to write this year’s d’var Torah. Most of what I read was like what I had written over the years: pay attention to your tone of voice, and there are no real winners in a dispute. Frustrated, I turned my attention to watching my stepson Andrew and my husband make pancakes with our two-year-old granddaughter (see the photo above). I thought about my son Adam and his daughters and marveled at the patience and thoughtfulness with which both those young men parent their children. In circumstances where I might have lost my temper or answered a question hurriedly or without thinking, I noticed that these two men pause just a moment to center themselves and consider their response. I thought about the parashah again and remembered, “When Moses heard this, he fell face down.” Why did he do that? In all these years, I had never considered that question! As we know, nothing in the Torah is superfluous, so what lesson are we to learn from this? 

Perhaps Moses needed a moment to reflect on what Korach had said. Did he need to check himself and determine whether his ego had gotten in the way of truly hearing his people? Moses had to consider the possibility that Korach had a valid point, or at least that his accusations had some element of truth to them. Had his actions played a part in Korach’s rebellion? He needed some time and space to breathe and consider all of the possibilities. Having taken that moment of reflection, Moses was able to face Korach with a clear head, knowing that Korach was indeed wrong and that he and Aaron had faithfully followed God’s commands. 

How many times have we reacted angrily to someone’s comments when taking a moment to reflect would have resulted in a calmer discussion and potentially a better outcome? As leaders in our sisterhoods and women’s groups, we are often faced with women who challenge our ideas, disrupt our meetings, or fail to follow through on promised activities. When faced with a challenging conversation, sometimes taking a moment just to breathe is the most helpful thing we can do. Taking that moment to stop and reflect on our own part in whatever is happening will lead to better communication and often more engaged volunteers. I am not suggesting that you fall on your face, as Moses did; closing your eyes and pausing before replying will have the same effect. 

I am currently serving as the Interim Executive Director of my congregation, and I am experiencing the value of taking that moment to pull myself together and reflect on my own actions before responding to someone. I am now the recipient of emails, texts, and calls about everything — from clogged-up sinks and broken light bulbs, to angry parents fighting over their preschool children's snacks, to suggestions about where we should have more trash cans. I must stop before I respond and determine if there is any validity to the complaint before I reply.  

I think back to that first d’var Torah about Korach, about parents and rebellion and punishment, and I try to remember who the person was who wrote that. I am grateful that, over the years, I have learned from so many people, including my children, about the value of stopping to reflect before replying.

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