Friday, June 26, 2009

"Bad Jews"

Korach was a rogue, a rabble-rouser who challenged the rabbis of his time and everything Judaism held dear. Korach’s call for reform attracted hundreds of the Israelites’ best and brightest. They gathered, cried foul and insisted on change.

But, Korach and his anti-establishment crew all died in a public show of G-d’s support for His leadership structure, swallowed by the earth in front of the whole community. Ever since, Korach’s name evokes echoes of rebellion and disrespect. He is the paragon “bad Jew”.

It should surprise you, then, to find his name in lights. The Torah names the portion describing Korach’s uprising after him! King Solomon taught us to obliterate the names of the wicked and we usually relegate the rogues of history to obscurity, stamping out their memory. Here, we give Korach a platform that even Moses does not get- a Parsha named for him.

Korach’s uprising may appear to be a jealous spat targeting his cousins, Moses and Aaron, who got it all. On closer inspection, you can detect a wistful ambition for spiritual advancement in Korach. The irony of Korach is that he had the right motives, he just did not know what to with them.

His contention was that every Jew is holy and every Jew should be able to attain the coveted position of Kohen Gadol- high priest. Moses even agreed with his sentiment, responding that he, too, wished to become High Priest, but that G-d created systems and job allocations that we need to accept.

Korach knew something else- in the Messianic Age the Levites (he was one) would serve as kohanim, as priests. He wished to fast-track the process and become a kohen there and then.

When the Torah named this portion Korach, it wanted to teach us that yearning for a higher spiritual platform is a virtue. You only need to ensure that you keep idealism in check, or you could go off the rails as Korach ultimately did.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that this portion holds a vital lesson on how to view “bad Jews”. People often write off the rebels within our Jewish community. Traditionalists recoil at free-thinkers who reinterpret Judaism against convention; who vie for roles that Orthodoxy bars them from.

Rather than rush to condemn, the Torah wants us to recognize the Korach-like yearning to participate that every Jew feels. Not every Jew expresses that wish; not every Jew knows what do with it. Every Jew has it.

Each of us needs to nurture the yearning for greater spiritual participation that we feel and that others feel. We also need to learn how best to channel that want, so that its passion can spiritually uplift us rather than distract us.

This week we commemorate the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Thursday, the third of Tammuz, is the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit), someone whose life-mission epitomizes recognizing the soul-thirst that every Jew has and innovating methods to grow it into proper focused spiritual success.

We would all do well to emulate his example, and cultivate the spark within the Korachs we encounter.

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