This is based on my talk after Shabbat services on June 24.
Rabbi Jan Urbach, in this past week's devar Torah from JTS, shared an insightful perspective on today's portion Korah. Though a lot has been written by commentators over the centuries as to Korah's motivation for his rebellion against his cousin Moses, Rabbi Urbach instead focuses on Moses' method of countering the revolt. By following the structure of the portion we learn a method today for countering demagogues today.
The initial response to Korah and his 250 followers was for the earth to open and swallow them all. Though that was very dramatic and was meant to frighten the people into submission, it didn't rid the people of their feelings of outrage and disappointment in Moses and Aaron's leadership. Korah had struck a nerve in a people that had already felt despair and punishment. Korah took advantage of the people's moral weakness. Korah raised issues that were against what the Torah had taught and were against God's law. Korah attempted to circumvent matters of social justice for his own gain and power. The people saw Korah as a short term antidote against their fate of languishing in the desert for 38 more years.
Though Korah and his band were swallowed by the earth, the people were still upset. So Moses, with God's help, reverts to love and compassion. The sticks that were collected from each tribe and the one that sprouted flowers (Aaron's from the tribe of Levi) represented a return to love and peace. The flowers on the stick symbolize the message that God and the Torah will only be eternal if their message is one of justice and compassion. The people are reminded of their destiny and their moral compass and with the portion concluding with a reiteration of levitical duties the people are grounded once again in the Torah of morality and ethics.
This message of justice and compassion is just as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago. Though I'm not a public policy expert, I feel a responsibility to respond in a Jewish way to matters of social justice in America today. Basic elements of a caring and compassionate society - safety and health - are being threatened. Our society must be one that is based on everyone having equal access to protection, health and justice. When anyone in our community feels threatened because of their economic status, the color of their skin or their mental capacity, then we are all threatened. We must ensure that all are free so that we may be free too. The book of Leviticus teaches, "love your neighbor as you would be loved" which is the foundational principle of how our society not only can function but can achieve sanctity.
We must continue to advocate for the poor and the disadvantaged. We must continue to fight against those who seek gain for the wealthy and the few. We must fight with a flowering stick - as in the portion Korah - with love and peace. In that way we know that justice will surely prevail.