Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Korach 5777


Bald Truths: How Rebellion Teaches Us Leadership 

Posted on June 22, 2017

Korach chronicles the greatest rebellion in the entire Torah, the palace revolt of the Levite named Korach and his 400 followers against the divinely ordained leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.  As so often seems to be the case, we Jews are our own worst enemies.  The result of this insurrection is disastrous, at least for the rebels.  The earth opens and Korach and all of his misguided followers are swallowed up, never to be heardfrom again.  

By tradition, the rebellion of Korach is the absolute worst revolt of its sort in Jewish history.  But this is hardly the first rebellion of the Israelites against Moses’ leadership, and it is certainly also not the last.  In a couple of weeks the Torah portion of Pinchas will conclude yet another episode of an insider revolution, that one solved at the point of a spear.  And the rebellions against Moses and God have been pretty continuous: the criticism on the very shore of the Red Sea, the Golden Calf episode, the intense unhappiness of the Children of Israel throughout their peregrinations in the desert right up to last week’s story of the failed spies in ShlachL’cha.  Our ancestors had a very bad habit of constantly becoming dissatisfied and continuously trying to overthrow the proper order of things.  Whoever was in charge always got the brunt of the criticism and received the lion’s share of the hostility.

That tendency has remained a particularly Jewish one throughout our long history.  While we joke about the stereotype of two Jews having three opinions, the truth is that our ancient heritage is a contentious one.  If we weren’t rebelling against God and Moses we were fighting for control of the monarchy or against Philistines,Babylonians, Greeks, or Romans.  And when actual armed insurrection was beyond us we engaged in intellectual debates so intense they bordered on warfare: from the endless, detailed Talmudic arguments to the political infighting of the Zionists to the Jewish socialists against the Jewish communists against the Jewish anarchists there is a long and rich and highly developed tradition of Korach-ism.

Since Korach is considered to be the worst of all of these, I wondered if there is any clue in the Hebrew of his name.  The Hebrew root, Korach, has a few other meanings.  One is tocut or shear things, to slice, andcertainly rebellion is intended as a cutting gesture.  Another meaning of Kufreishchetis ice or cold, like Kerachto chill or freeze, again a kind of reflection of emotional distance and hostility.  Put those together, to cut and to make cold and you come up with… well, cold cuts.  Very Jewish.  

My favorite korach translation is the meaning baldness, Karei’ach;this seems to indicate that a lack of hair is potentially untrustworthy… my apologies, on behalf of the Hebrew language, to all bald people who rightfully resent this assertion.  In defense, I must say that some of my best friends are bald.  And there is nothing implied here about hairpieces to remedy the baldness also implying a rebellious nature.

Midrash provides another kind of clue.  By rabbinic tradition Korach is considered to have been a very wealthy man, a kind of Jewish Croesus, the Rothschild, the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos of the Sinai Desert Israelites.  There is a Hebrew slang term, otzrotKorachthe treasures of Korach, which basically means someone is filthy rich.  Somehow Korach’s wealth is associated with the tendency to revel in rebellion, a willingness to say and do anything, regardless of truth or decency, because money can insulate him from the consequences of his statements and actions.

Let’s see now: rebellion against God’s appointed leaders comes from a coldness of heart and a desire to cut, reflects a paucity of the insulating calm of hair and is inflamed by the financial means to support truly dangerous rebellion.  I’m not sure that our littleHebrew excursion has provided us with particularly useful insights.

One thing, however, does emerge from Korach: the plain truth that leading the Jews has never been an easy task—important, rewarding, ethically essential, but never, ever easy.  If it is true that shvertzuzain a Yidit’s hard to be a Jew, it is even harder to be a Jewish leader.  And so I wonder: why would intelligent, caring, reasonable Jews wish to take on this responsibility?  What is there about the opportunity to make this commitment that attracts talented people with other things to do in life to spend time and effort in this contentious arena?  Why would someone wish to engage in the constant give and take, the automatic Jewish flow of criticism and critique that aims itself at any and every leader of substance and integrity?

Perhaps the answer is also to be found in our Torah portion.  Not so much in the desire to see your enemies swallowed up whole by the earth before everyone’s eyes, although that isan attraction.  No, it is in the understanding, as the defeat of Korach ultimately confirms, that while everyone is holy in this community of priests, legitimate, principled, selfless, honest leadership with integrity is also absolutely necessary for us to achieve that holiness collectively.  We need direction, and organization, and the practical details of everyday functionality to be taken care of so that we can grow spiritually.  

What distinguishes Moses from those who rebel against him, like Korach, is his humble desire to do God’s will, and to further the cause of oneness and sanctity in this world.  What he teaches us is that conflicts are not the goal—it is what happens after the resolution of conflict that defines us, and our value in this world.

May the Holy One bless us all with the wisdom to know that our path lies not with Korach, but with Moses, and thus with God.

Join us for Chardonnay Shabbat this Friday night: wine, cheese and fruit pre-Oneg at 5 PM, upbeat, cool Chardonnay Shabbat services at 5:45 PM.

And celebrate Havdallah with us at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum event this Saturday, June 24th at 5 PM—admission free for the first 50 people!—no-host dinner, then songs, stories and Havdallah with me, followed by evening tours of this treasure of Tucson.  









Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Shelach Lecha 5777


Changing Culture:

Posted on June 15, 2017

This week we chant the dramatic portion of Shelach Lecha in the book of Numbers, the story of the meraglim, the spies. The Israelites have journeyed to the borders of the Holy Land, just a year and a half after leaving Egyptian exile. Under God’s direction, Moses sends 12 spies, one from every tribe, princes of the people—wealthy men of standing—into the land of Canaan to scout out the land and see if it can be captured.

The spies take a month and they see the whole land—and report back to Moses that the land is very good, flowing with milk and honey. They bring back a huge cluster of grapes, so large it needs to be carried by two men on a pole, now the enduring symbol of Israel’s tourism ministry. Everything’s going to be great—only it’s not. Ten of the twelve spies then report that the people of the land are huge—“we felt like grasshoppers next to them”—and numerous, the cities fortified and unassailable. The Israelites have no chance, in spite of having God’s support.

Two spies, Caleb and Joshua, deliver a minority report, saying that with God’s help the land can be taken. But the people are terrified. Again, they ask Moses and Aaron, “why did you take us from slavery only to kill us here at the hands of our enemies?”

It’s at this point that the decision is made by God: this generation of former slaves will never be able to become a free people in its own land. The psychological shackles of slavery are too strong to overthrow in one generation. And so, after a failed, leaderless attempt to invade the land without God’s approval or Moses’ leadership, the people are condemned to wander the wilderness for 38 more years—a total of 40 since they left Egyptian slavery—until a new, young generation can emerge to take the reigns and enter the land with the mentality of freedom.

It’s a great lesson in the process that is required to cleanse the trauma of failure from the minds of a community. Often, it’s not one single act or great revolution that truly remakes a people or a country—it’s the generational turn that comes from learning that things can be done differently, and that freedom is a birthright.


Please join us for cool and fun Chardonnay Shabbat with Israeli Water Authority speaker Doron Markel this Friday night: 5 PM Wine Cheese and Fruit Pre-Oneg, 5:45 PM Chardonnay Shabbat Services

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Beha'alotecha 5777


Talk About It: The Ethics of Speech

Posted on June 8, 2017

This week our portion, Beha’alotecha from the Book of Numbers, is filled with a series of incidents and events from the Wilderness Days, as well as a couple of important commandments.  It’s in this week’s portion that instructions are given to create the first menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that has become the most enduring symbol of Judaism.  It’s also here that we get the first rumblings of rebellion that will explode into full-fledged revolt against Moses and Aaron in just a few more weeks, the disastrous story of Korach.  But most significant in this week’s sedrah is a peculiar little story about gossip.

Moses has married a new wife, and his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, don’t think much of her.  So they begin to talk about her, and about Moses, behind his back, circulating rumors and gossip.  She isn’t of the right ethnicity, they don’t like her influence on Moses, she probably laughs inappropriately or wears her hair too long.

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Beha'alotecha 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Naso 5777


All You Really Need

Posted on June 1, 2017

This week we chant the second portion of the book of Numbers, called Naso, which includes a remarkable blessing.  The Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, is really three distinct brachot, three separate prayers, with which the ancient priests are commanded to bless the people. 

From its inception this three-part blessing had exceptional importance.  As the Torah quotes God saying, “with this blessing you will place My Name on the people of Israel, samu et shemi al b’nai Yisrael”—that is, this very blessing conveys God’s presence among us, and offers God’s protection. 

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Naso 5777

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Bamidbar 5777


Yom Yerushalayim—The City of Peace
On the 50 year-Anniversary of the 6-Day War

Posted on May 25, 2017

This week we read the Torah portion of Bamidbar, which describes a census taken of the people of Israel as we are about to go to war to capture our land.  The timing is fascinating, for today we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim on the Jewish calendar, the holiday that commemorates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem in the miraculous Six Day War of 1967.  It has been exactly 50 years on the Jewish calendar since we were finally able to return to the Kotel, the Western Wall, holiest place on earth for Jews; 50 years since the commander of the troops who captured the Old City from Jordanian forces, Motta Gur, announced, Har HaBayit B’yadeinu—the Temple Mount is in our hands.

Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk On Bamidbar 5777


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