I want to begin by saying how excited and privileged I am to serve as your rabbi, the rabbi of Congregation Bet Shira. To begin my tenure with an aufruf, marking the start of two people’s lives together, is an added bonus. I want to thank all those who have worked so hard to make preparations for Karina and my arrival, especially Linda Truppman, Jason Timmons, Steve Goldstein and the rest of the dedicated Bet Shira team. It has been such a joy and pleasure to begin to partner with you to ensure a strong and vibrant future for our spiritual home.
Five years ago I began my tenure at the Jericho Jewish Center also on Parshat Korach. I deliberately include some of those words within my remarks today as they share crucial lessons about leadership.
I think a case can be made that the antagonist of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, gets a bad rap. Let’s start by looking at his words. The first words Korach and his followers say to Moses and Aaron are “רב לכם כי כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם יקוק ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל יקוק”-“It is too much for you, for the entire community is holy and Adonai is in their midst. Why do you lift yourselves up over the community of G-d?” Doesn’t Korach have a point here? He is trying to democratize the Israelite nation rather than it being a theocracy governed by Moses and Aaron. Furthermore, in Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advised him to delegate court cases to others so that he would not get burned out. Why, therefore, does Yitro get lauded by our tradition whereas Korach gets castigated?
I think the answer can be found in the specific linguistic choices of the Bible. In Exodus, Yitro first saw what Moses was doing. He observed the situation before he jumped to conclusions. After observing, Yitro asked Moses why he was sitting alone while the rest of the people stood before him from day to night. Rather than making an accusatory statement or giving advice, Yitro asked Moses for the rationale behind why he was the sole judge. Moses’ reply is that the people come to him to inquire of G-d. At this point Yitro tells Moses that what he is doing is not good as he will burn out, for this task is too heavy for him. Yitro does not simply say “Do not do this” but rather demonstrates to Moses that to continue with the status quo will not be to Moses’ benefit. Hence, judicial reform was needed. Through first observing the situation, and then asking Moses why things were as they were and finally demonstrating to Moses that delegating court cases will enhance Moses’ ability to be the Israelites leader, Yitro becomes praised by Jewish tradition.
In contrast we have the example of Korach. The portion begins by saying “and Korach took” but does not define what he took. Rashi’s interpretation is that Korach took himself to side against Moses and the Israelite community. His grandson Rashbam’s interpretation, which I prefer, is that Korach took other leaders (Datan Abiram and On and 250 priests) to join him against Moses. Like Avshalom in the Second Book of Samuel, Korach was politically persuasive and influenced others, each with their own agenda, to join him in his quest against Moses. By coming together in great numbers, Korach strove to threaten Moses and Aaron’s role as leader.
Next we get to the content of Korach’s words. Instead of observing the situation first, or asking Moses and Aaron about their leadership, Korach jumps to the conclusion “It is too much for you” and ends by saying “Why are you lifted up over the congregation of G-d?” In other words, Korah’s point is ‘Who made you leader?’ Perhaps Korach was jealous that as a cousin of Moses he was not appointed to a leadership role. While Korach perhaps is correct that the entire nation is holy, rather than confronting the issue from a point of respect he does so from a point of accusation, trying to bully Moses and Aaron into relinquishing power. Moses and Aaron have no response to this except to fall on their faces. Never before have they received a challenge this severe from another Israelite leader.
What does this mean for us? I think there are 3 key lessons that we can learn from the contrast between Yitro and Korach. The first is, when we see a situation that we do not like, we must properly assess it rather than jumping in and making accusations. To be able to look at a situation from multiple angles rather than just one’s own is challenging, yet it is an attribute of the greatest leaders and one I think which is worth emulating. If after looking at the situation we are still bothered by what we see, we need to ask the person responsible for the situation why things are as they are. Again we must be careful not to use an accusatory tone, as Korach did, but rather speak from the point of inquiry and curiosity, as Yitro did. Finally, if the person’s answer is still challenging then we can try to convince him/her to change, but only from the standpoint that change will be in his/her best interest. This is not from self-righteousness but rather from a legitimate belief in trying to help the other. Through following the example of Yitro, as opposed to Korach, we can first learn why certain situations exist and based on that foundational knowledge decide if it makes sense to retain the status quo or make changes. This is the model that I will follow as Rabbi of Bet Shira.
Today we are celebrating the aufruf and upcoming marriage of two special people, Jennifer and Evan . Jennifer’s parents Jeffrey and Raquel have been long-time members of Bet Shira, with Raquel being one of our minyanires and a leader in our Caring Kehila. Jennifer and Evan met in July 2016 and quickly discovered that they have much in common, including a love of sports, movies and travel. They had a memorable trip to the Dominican Republic. They also are dog lovers, having a shi tzu named Whinnie the Pooh who will be clad in tallit and a yarmulke at their wedding. The family is fortunate to be celebrating their second simcha in two months, with Evan’s brother Jason tying the knot in May.
Jennifer and Evan-you will receive lots of unsolicited advice in the next two weeks, so let me give some as well. My advice is that you follow the approach of Yitro. When you run into conflict as we all do in the roller-coaster we call life, first observe the situation before reacting. Next ask the other out of genuine curiosity why they feel a certain way of why things are as they are. Most importantly, remember that you are a team and that your successes are shared. This will help you look out for each other’s best interests as a unit.
Jennifer and Evan, my blessing for you is that your love continues to blossom each and every day and that you remain one another’s רעים אהובים best friends, always looking out for the other and letting your love conquer any challenge that comes your way in life. I also know that you will continue to stand by one another, providing confidence and bolstering the other up in times of need. In remembering that your relationship with one another is what is truly most important, much more so than the particular disagreement or issue at hand, may you strengthen your true love each and every day. In addition to being each other’s partners, always remember that you are best friends and then your marriage will thrive. Mazal Tov!
In order to crystallize this moment I ask that we turn to Page 443 for a special Mi Sheberach Before a Wedding.