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Parashat Korach D'var Torah by Avi Magidsohn

27/06/2017 10:43:07 AM


D’Var Torah

Parashat Korach

June 24, 2017


Shabbat Shalom.  And Happy Pride! 

Today’s reading is Parashat Korach - a difficult one to link to Pride Day, what with the earth opening up and swallowing Korach and his fellow resisters! 

To recap this Parashat, Korach, Dathan and Abiram (with the support of 250 high-ranking Levites,) challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron, in particular on the issue of Aaron’s elevation to the rank of Kohanim.  Moses asks the assembled men why they are not satisfied with the special privileges they are accorded as Levites. Moses is not happy with this challenge and tells Korach that God will sort it out the next day.   Each of the unhappy men is to bring their fire pan and incense before the Lord and Aaron and Moses will do the same.  God will decide.  When the whole community was assembled the next day and all the fire pans were set out, God spoke to Moses and Aaron and told them to move themselves (and eventually the community) away from the dwellings of Korach, Dathan and Abiram as they were about to be “wiped out” for their sins.  The ground opened up and swallowed the three men, all their relatives and possessions, and buried them alive.  The 250 Levites who had supported the three were consumed by fire.  The Israelite community were angered by what they had seen and blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the Levites.  God was angry at this and unleashed a plague among the people that killed 14,700.  Moses tells Aaron to add incense to a fire pan and circulate among the Israelites.  In this way, Aaron makes amends for the people before God and stands in the way of further deaths.

 A central feature of the Parashat is Korach’s challenge of Moses’ raising some parts of the community above others:

“‘You have gone too far! For all the community is holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonais congregation?’”  [Numbers 16:3]

Korach is, no doubt, promoted as a cautionary tale against challenging the authority of God and God’s representatives.  Korach is characterized as wicked and evil and a rebel.  Resistance to the establishment is futile because you can’t win. However, sometimes resistance is not about winning but simply about the irrepressible need to speak truth to power.  Sometimes that power is a government or a community or the part of ourselves that likes life to be calm, stable, fair and mostly uneventful!

I like to imagine that when Korach first began to feel discomfort with some of decisions that Moses and his people were making, Korach tried to rationalize - “So what if it seems like Moses is putting some people above others.  I mean, this is Moses!! He freed us from slavery!  And that whole Red Sea thing?  That was a trip!! And the guy talks to God - and God talks back!!  Everything is so much better than it was during slavery.  It’s all fine.  I could do without the wandering aimlessly in the desert, but I should just keep my mouth shut and be happy with what we’ve got.”  And I’m sure that Korach went back and forth with this for a while until he couldn’t fight his truth anymore.  And, if he was anything like me, he considered every possible outcome of speaking that truth publicly - although I don’t know if the possibility of God opening the earth and swallowing him alive would have occurred to either of us!  I expect Korach’s mouth might have been a little dry, his knees might have been a bit shaky and his palms a bit sweaty - because challenging authority is always a scary thing, no matter your motives or how strong your conviction.  And even though it didn't end well for Korach (okay, it ended horribly badly!!), perhaps his example of speaking his truth planted a tiny seed in the souls of the people - a seed which sprouts into life when we, each in our own way, speak truth to power to bring about Tikkun Olam.  We gather here together in a Reconstructionist synagogue because Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and Rabbi Ira Eisenstein spoke their truth to power. In big and little ways, we can speak our truth to power.

Last year at Pride, Black Lives Matter spoke their truth to power - the power being the Pride Committee of Toronto.  While there are some in the community who no doubt wish the ground had opened up under the feet of the BLM protestors, their actions have spurred very important conversations between community members that desperately needed to happen - because no one is safe  until we all are safe.  And no one is free until we are all free.

So what about me?  Why am I up here on Pride Day delivering a meandering d’var torah?  Remember when I said that sometimes the power that we must speak truth to is ourselves?  Well, my moment came just after the death of my mother in January 2016.  After finally exhaling after a few intense months of doing all the things that need to be done after a death, a very small, but insistent voice inside of me, asked a question -“Now that you do not have to be someone’s daughter, who do you want to be?”  The answer came immediately and without hesitation.  I wanted, finally, to feel completely authentic.  And the way to do that was to live my life as a man.  But the part of me that represented power wasn’t going to go down without a fight - “But why would you want to turn everything inside out?!?! Life is really good right now.  You have a great job, a loving family, a tight community of close friends!  Why would you risk all this?  And, aren’t you a bit old for this nonsense?!?!”  But there I stood, mouth dry, knees shaking, and palms sweating, speaking my truth to power over and over.  And the part of me that likes things to be neat and orderly and calm, threw up its hands in defeat.  But then came the hardest part.   Speaking my truth publicly, to my family, my friends, my colleagues, the students and families I work with, and now, my shul community.  And everywhere, I was blessed to be met with love and compassion and respect.  

Names are powerful and inextricably linked to identity.  Cultures have very distinct and important ceremonies to celebrate naming.  In Judaism, babies are traditionally named at their bris or in the synagogue.  Our son, Shai, was given his Spirit Name by a Traditional Elder in keeping with his Indigenous culture.  As he enters adolescence or adulthood, he may receive a new Spirit Name that more accurately reflects who he has become or will be.  Sometimes names mark a life-changing event - as when Jacob wrestled the angel at the water’s edge and was re-named Israel [Genesis 32:22-28].  We have special names for different stages of life - Mama and Papa give way to Bubbie and Zaidie.  Names are how others know us.  And sometimes they help us know ourselves more fully.  When I was born, my mother named me Adrienne Louise.  When I converted to Judaism, I chose the name Adira Eliana.  And now, as I step into the rest of my life as my most authentic self, I am Avi Ephraim.

As my transition has progressed, I have realized that the more authentically I live my life, the deeper and richer are the connections I can have with others.  I encourage all of us to speak truth to power, most especially within ourselves.  If you were to live your life more authentically, who would you be?

Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784