This morning, after the main climax of the Korach rebellion, we read about the plague that to threatened to wipe out the entire nation after:
“Aaron took [the fire pan], as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.”
How does such a rebellion start? What are the roots of such a plague?
They often begin with a solitary person. This one begins with Korach. This morning, Ella [Wilson, that morning’s Bat Mitzvah] showed us a way to read Korach as a person ahead of his time, as a man of vision who lacked the understanding that his society was not ready to live according to his ideals. I want to go back to a more traditional way of understanding Korach, which is that of a man who harbors deep jealousy and hatred in his heart, and rallies others to his pain in the guise of a popular revolt.
Who is Korach? The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion tells us exactly who he is. He is a descendant of Levy, the tribe that has been appointed the priestly role in Israel, but more to the point, he is also the next in line after Aaron and his sons to become the prince of the tribe of Levy. However, for some unknown reason (or perhaps this rebellion illustrates the reasons) he is overlooked for the position, which is filled by one of Korach’s younger cousins, from a younger uncle.
The Rabbis imagine Korach sitting alone in his tent, jilted and jealous, plotting his revenge against Moses and Aaron, whom he sees as the responsible parties. His aspirations are nothing less than taking control of the people by appealing to the frustration of the masses.
Korach should have been willing to hear from others who think differently from him, to check out his ideas, to balance out his thoughts with those of others. Instead, he stewing in his feelings of injustice and mistreatment, and refused to see the good in Moses and Aaron, to understand the needs of the people at that time. Korach only saw it as an affront to his honor that he was not chosen to lead his tribe. No more. No less.
Korach’s sin is that he is completely self-absorbed. The size of his ego goes to the horizon of his entire world view, to the exclusion of all others around him. He cannot see anyone else beyond himself. Korach is not merely intolerant, because this is not about tolerance. Korach is filled with the feeling that he is the only one that really counts, born out of his sense that he deserves more because of his birth, because of his place in the tribal family tree, and his festers in to hatred of the other.
I see in Darryl Roof, the man who entered a church Wednesday evening, say through a bible study session, and then spewed hate-filled utterances, and opened fire, killing nine people, the same kind of hate. It’s not just tolerance we need to teach. We need to teach our children, and many adults as well, how to make room for the other in our lives, for people who are different than we are, who look, act and think differently than we do. In order to do that, we need to turn our focus away from ourselves and to refocus outward, so that our ego gets put into it’s proper place – not at the center of the world, but as a servant serving what is sacred, by being one of God’s servant.
What happened in Charlotte was not about many things.
- This was not a boy behaving badly.
- This is not about mental illness.
- This is not about gun control.
- This was not an attack on Christianity, or religion in general, even though this happened in a church.
A church! Houses of worship are the last safe haven. I have learned from the news in recent weeks that for so many:
- Home is not safe.
- Cars are not safe.
- Pools are not safe.
- Being on the street is not safe.
The doors of the church, the mosque, the synagogue are supposed to be open.
They welcomed Darryl Roof into their church to study a sacred text with them.
We come into a sanctuary to let our selves be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to the possibilities that our world can become a better place for everyone. When we walk through those doors, we let our guards down, and put our worries aside for a time.
The doors were open.
This was an act of violent racial terrorism, and an assassination of a publicly elected official.
In an article in the Washington Post, I read these four poignant paragraphs:
- A 21-year-old millennial, in 2015, is alleged to have taken a page from the 1960s and assassinated a black political leader: South Carolina State Senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was among the dead.
- A 21-year-old millennial, by allegedly saying “You rape our women,” invoked the centuries-old defense of protecting white women as a justification for the slaughter of black people.
- A 21-year-old donned early-20th-century symbols of apartheid and racist colonial regimes in Africa on his Facebook page.
- A 21-year-old allegedly copied from the age-old playbook of racial terror, adding another bloody chapter to the long history of assaults on black people at churches in America.
This is about the plague of racism that exists in our country that we need to address.
The roots of this plague have deep roots in cultural, social, economic, and political history, more than I can delve into or even fully understand myself.
Moses and Aaron first respond to Korach’s challenge by falling on their faces. We white people could use a little falling on our faces and admitting how little we understand.
I will share one short story about race in Syracuse. Currently, I am the co-chair of the ACTS Clergy Caucus. ACTS is a grass roots organization that works on various issues of social justice in larger Syracuse. At the last Clergy Caucus, our guest speaker was Emmanuel Flower, from the Brady Faith Center and chair of the Youth and Violence Task Force. He shared with the group that day about the gang structures of Syracuse, both male and female gangs, what streets they each saw as their territory, and I realized that my life is a complete disconnect from anything happening beyond my predominantly white suburb.
Disconnect can lead to one human being to dehumanize another.
Yet, Aaron, the high priest, stood between the people and the plague.
We are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We must be among those who stop this plague. And we have been among those who have tried to stop this plague. Fifty-one years ago today, seventeen American Rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida for protesting segregation in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were arrested in part for protesting a whites only pool.
From their jailhouse cell, the Rabbis penned a letter which beautifully captured why they could not be silent in the face of racism. Their words still ring true today:
We need to stop this plague. And it begins with us. To help us, I want to look at a familiar biblical text that contains the seeds of moving beyond race, and towards seeing every human being as made in the Image of God. This teaching comes to me from Rabbi Shai Held. [Note: This is a paraphrase of his teaching from his Facebook post.] When God creates biological life, whether it is plant or animal, there is always of acknowledgement of the diversity of that kind of life. Fruit trees of every kind. Seed-bearing plants of every kind. Living creature of every kind. Winged birds of every kind. Will beasts of every kind.
But when it comes for creating human beings, this phrase is subtly omitted:
“And God said, “Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created it; male and female God created them.”
There are no kinds of human beings. There is only one kind of human being, and that kind is made in God’s image. The Hebrew Bible will go on to explain, defend and celebrate human diversity later on, but that diversity is secondary to the unity of Genesis 1. Every human being is part of the same family, the same people. The Rabbis teach that this is to tell us that “no one can to anyone else that their ancestors is better than anyone else’s.” We all share one common human parent, not to mention the same one Heavenly Parent as well.
For some reason, this fundamental biblical lesson, in a country that prides itself on its religious foundations, has completely missed the meaning and the power of this verse. The founding fathers missed this, not seeing people with brown skin as fully human, and this dehumanization led to this nation’s near collapse under the bloody banner of Civil War. Why do Confederate flags still fly over southern American cities? It is a brazen disregard for our all people who suffered in the country because of the color of their skin.
Rabbi Held concluded: “Two of this great nation’s most unforgivable forms of madness met [on Wednesday]: our obsession with guns and our dehumanization of African-Americans. There are entire industries dedicated to denying that either of these problems is real– and to attacking those willing to speak the unvarnished, unwelcome truth. Let us find the courage to defy them, once and for all. At a certain point we lose any credibility in declaring (feigning?) shock; we have long past that point. If not now, then for the love of God when?”
Given all of this, I think that there is something that we can do. Call someone who is of a different skin color, and invite them to a cup of coffee. There is no better way to connect to someone than to sit down over a hot cup of something and have a conversation with them. Some basic questions can get the conversation going: What keeps you up a night? What gets you up in the morning? They talk. You listen. You talk. They listen. In my mind I call it: One Humanity. One Cup. If every person of one color did this with someone of another skin color in Syracuse, that would go a long way towards creating connections, understanding and humanizing each other.