Korach/Haftarah: The Prophet & the King

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Dear Friends: It’s been a sad week here at the HQ of Rabbineal-list.
The world lost a great scholar and a wonderful man this week, who
happened to be my uncle, Sam Weissman. (Also known as Samuel I.
Weissman, but I never called him that.) Sam was a scientist, a
professor, a learned aficionado of classical music, and perhaps the
best teller of funny stories in all of St. Louis- especially if those
stories involved the colorful characters of his youth in Chicago.

In thinking about Sam- which is most of the thinking I’ve been doing
this week- I first thought to compare him to Korach, the villain of
this week’s Torah portion, and indeed, one could contrast the arrogant
and divisive Korach with a man who was gregarious, generous, and
confident enough not to talk down to anybody (though Sam had little
patience for pompous people or oversized egos.)

However, I take even more comfort from the fact that the haftarah
[prophetic reading] associated with the portion Korach is a story from
– you guessed it- the Book of Samuel, and more specifically the story
of how Samuel, who was both prophet and leader of the people, gave in
to the people’s demand to have a king. He tells the people that
they’ve done a foolish thing, but he assents nonetheless to their
demand, perhaps realizing that although a human king may lead the
people astray or oppress them, the alternative (not allowing them to
have a king who unites the tribes) may be worse. So Samuel crowns Saul
as king- which didn’t work out so well- and reminds the people that
they chose to have a king more out of fear of other nations than out
of faith in God’s law. (Important note: This year, in the Diaspora,
Korach falls on a Shabbat which is also Rosh Hodesh, or the New Moon,
so that haftarah takes precedence- the haftarah from Samuel is read
all other years.)

The emotional resonance of this story, for me, is the prophet’s
realization that he has to do something he finds problematic, because
the alternative is simply worse. To refuse the people their king could
have led to anarchy, military defeat, and discord among the tribes,
each with their own leader. In making Saul the king, Samuel had to
choose practical outcomes over idealism, which is never pleasant, but
is something confronted by sensitive and ethical people every day;
hard choices cannot be avoided in a life which encounters important
issues.

My late Uncle Sam understood the necessity of hard choices, because he
participated in developing an atomic bomb for the USA during WWII, and
told me on several occasions that he and his colleagues did what they
felt they must do to win the war. Also like his Biblical namesake, he
was suspicious of human authorities, albeit for secular rather than
theological reasons- he lived long enough to know that human beings
often abuse their power and inflate their own egos, from the king on
down.

I understood his healthy scepticism of human foibles not as cynicism,
but as a reminder to pay even greater attention to the right things,
rather than get distracted by the wrong ones. In the prophet Samuel’s
case, the people would not suffer for their choice to have a human
king if they made the right religious choices, whereas for my secular,
humanist uncle, there was redemption, if I may use the word, to be
found in the humbling experiences of great art, reasoned discourse,
and the universal language of science – all of which required
diligence (and good humor) in their pursuit. I learned much of value
from my uncle Sam Weissman, and I thank each of you for allowing me to
dedicate this week’s Torah learning to his memory.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- if you’re curious, here’s a couple of pictures of Sam Weissman-
the first is his badge from the Los Alamos laboratories during WWII,
and the second is from a few years ago, when his portrait (seen behind
him) was dedicated at Washington University, where served on the
faculty for many years:

http://www.lanl.gov/history/wartime/images/ProjectYBadges/w/weissman-sam_i.gif

http://record.wustl.edu/news/page/normal/5851.html

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