No matter where we look – whether at home, at work, or in the news – tempers are running hot and moments of reconciliation and healing are in short supply. Coronavirus aside, divisiveness and disagreement have become an infectious virus, continually adapting and spreading to new scenarios and new carriers. Symptoms of this infection include increased insistence on the correctness of our own perspective and a diminished capacity to consider another’s point of view. This further entrenchment in our sense of being right is contagious, and adds to the polarization of our already-divided world. And while separation and isolation may be the recommended response to a COVID-19 infection, we know these measures only further accentuate the splits within our society, within our families, and even within our inner selves.
Can our texts and traditions provide us with guidance for immunizing ourselves against this “bug”?
During a recent Small Ethics group with our Primary residents, we studied the following poem by noted Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Amichai speaks to the deep attachment we have for being right, even in the face of the great destruction that it may cause for ourselves and others. Fortunately, one of the blessings of a spiritual recovery program is the cultivation of a willingness to “stop digging” and stand in the truth of a “bottom” rather than continuing to argue and destroy. Often this requires Holy assistance from others who can support and validate us in these moments of great vulnerability. It is a profound experience to surrender to a Truth larger than ourselves and join in being part of the solution.
All of this brings us to this week’s parashah, Korach, named after a man from a prominent Levite family. While Korach was a leader within the community, we are introduced to him as he initiates an uprising against Moses and Aaron. Commentators through the ages view Korach as the quintessential example of a self-serving manipulator, who distorts truth for his own benefit. In his attempts to overthrow the two Divinely appointed leaders of the community, Korach employs the strategy of using truth in order to lie, creating division and discord. This is a pattern that is familiar to many of us, one in which we focus on a kernel of truth in order to obscure or deflect from a wider perspective of reality. This distortion is best illustrated by the language Korach uses to accuse Moses and Aaron of separating themselves from the community.
“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and G!D is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above G!D’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)
On one level, what Korach is saying is true: the whole of the Israelite community is holy and G!D has dwelt within their midst. However, as Rabbi Mark observes, the “tell” in this case are the words “them” and “their.” By using these words, Korach identifies the community as separate from Moses and Aaron… and himself! If Korach was truly looking to hold the leadership accountable for a higher purpose, he would have included himself with the rest of the community (i.e., “all of US” and “in OUR midst”). He uses truth to create a distorted picture of reality.
The text doesn’t provide us much information about Korach, himself – neither what prompted him take up this insurgency, nor what internally enabled him to lie to the people, to the leadership, and… to himself. I believe this is intentional, to remind us that our capacity for this type of behavior continually exists; that we are all susceptible, and even more so during periods of great disagreement, polarization, and unrest.
Fortunately, our tradition provides us with guidance for striving to engage with division and conflict in healthy and holy ways. In Pirkei Avot 5:21, we are told: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.” The text cites Korach’s rebellion as one “not for the sake of Heaven,” while also describing the disagreements between Hillel and Shamai as the model for constructive dispute. Most notable about the relationship between these two sworn rivals was the degree of respect each one had for the other and the humility each embodied, listening to the other’s perspective in order to discover the enduring value of Truth.
Instead of escaping our inner brokeness by deflecting and focusing on the brokenness of the world around us, may our determination to humbly remain open to the perspectives of others bolster our pursuit and contribution to Truth and Peace.
Chaplain Adam Siegel