Archive for June, 2013

Chukat and Taking-A-Break news

Shalom all, Neal here.

The next few weeks are going to be very busy with travel and other responsibilities so we’re taking a break from writing until second week of July or so.

In the meantime, please see some wonderful commentaries on this week’s Torah portion that I’ve linked to below.

R. Charlie Savenor  explores Moshe’s leadership here, Prof. Shira Epstein discusses theimpact of Miriam’s death in the weekly JTSA commentary and from my alma mater the Ziegler School here’s a commentary on the death of Aharon.

Shabbat Shalom and see you in a few weeks!


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Korach: The Possibility of Conscience

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

“Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who of God and who is holy, and will draw him close . . . .’ “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 16:5)

Greetings! The book of Numbers is full of stories of conflict and competition, and this week’s reading is perhaps the most intense instance of this ongoing theme. Korach, a fellow Levite, challenges the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, threatening them with his sidekicks and a large gang of angry men. Moshe answers their challenge first by “falling on his face”- perhaps as a sign of humility, or frustration, or as an act of prayer- but then tells Korach and his gang to come back the next morning with their incense-pans, used in the religious offerings, so that God may choose one side or the other.

Our friend Rashi brings an earlier text to answer an obvious question: why the delay? Why not make an immediate and decisive demonstration that Korach was not chosen for leadership? The answer that Rashi brings is twofold: first there was a ruse, telling Korach that nighttime is for drinking and it certainly would not be appropriate to appear before the Holy One intoxicated! (Hence, “come morning. . .”) Then Rashi says Moshe’s real intention was to delay so that Korach and his gang might “go back” – that is, have a change of heart about the rebellion and anger they were directing at Moshe and Aharon.

This is a bit strange but also very beautiful. As I interpret it, the midrash imagines Moshe, who is earlier called the most humble man in Israel, portraying himself as a guy who likes to have a drink at night and therefore can’t appear before the Holy One, in order to create a delay and possibly head off the crisis without unnecessary conflict. In this reading, Moshe wants to put off a confrontation more than he wants to preserve his own dignity; he hopes that Korach will change his mind, rightly understanding that sometimes people need time to “cool off.”

Of course, once it becomes clear that Korach and his co-conspirators will not change their course of action, Moshe demands a clear and unambiguous ratification of his leadership- and gets it when the earth opens up and swallows the rebels whole. (I’ve always understood Korach’s fate to be a visual metaphor for the basic truth that those who like to stir up trouble often get “in over their heads,” so to speak.)

Yet at the beginning of the narrative, if we are to follow Rashi’s lead, Moshe is hopeful for a peaceful resolution, even though he’s been publicly insulted and accused of a power grab. To put it another way: Korach and his gang may have lost their faith in Moshe, but Moshe didn’t lose his faith in them, or the power of conscience to turn a human heart. That faith in the potential of conscience and t’shuvah is what allows Moshe to portray himself as drunk in the night- because for a peacemaker and true leader, making peace through peaceful means is more important than honor or status or personal dignity. In this case, Moshe’s hopes for reconciliation were not realized, but as for us- how often do we truly believe that those who hate us might change and repent? What a different world it might be if only we gave each other the chance to prove ourselves better people, as Moshe is understood to have done when faced with the greatest challenge in his long years of leadership.

Shabbat Shalom,



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