One person at a time: Vital importance, and important message, of loving thy neighbor

Rabbi Craig Marantz

By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Korach (Numbers 16:1−18:32)

In our Torah portion Korach, Moses struggles to build a community based on Torah.  At the foundation of this free community is redifat shalom (the pursuit of peace) and the catalyst for this peace, is v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, to love your neighbor as yourself.  Moses views G-d as the ultimate neighbor.  So, if one strives to love G-d as himself/herself, one should also strive to love their human neighbors–especially given the fact that people are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d.  Because everyone is made in the image of G-d, they are on equal footing in G-d’s eyes.  And made in G-d’s image, each human being should see another human being on equal footing. And when we are on equal footing with others, we tend to respect them more and exploit them less.

Korach, after whom this parashah is named, is a bright, talented, passionate but extremely divisive man who takes on Moses in the public forum, repudiating his leadership and compromising the legitimacy of Torah. The Sages ascribe many negative characteristics to Korach. He is jealous and mean, self-righteous with an insatiable appetite for power.  Angry at being overlooked by Moses for a position of leadership, Korach rebukes Moshe Rabbeinu. Korach also has a dangerous habit of misappropriating the meaning of Torah, thereby sabotaging any effective, fair-minded application of sacred text to the discovery of peaceful solutions. In the midrash on Psalms 1:1, Korach even accuses Moses and Aaron of exploiting the poor. (Midrash Shocher Tov) In toto, the Sages argue Korach capacity as a leader is severely limited because he thinks he is holy enough as is with no reason to improve as a leader. They conclude Korach is myopic, zealous, and unwilling to listen and learn.

The main problem here is Korach’s arrogant dismissal of the idea that community-building has nothing to do with the pursuit of the sacred. Moses succeeds in building community because he convinces people to choose the ways of G-d and work towards their fulfillment. Community- building is not just a socio-political exercise; it is a spiritual one, as well–based on redifat shalom, v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, and (I’ll add here) shmiat ha-ozen (deep listening).  Korach dismisses the relevance of such spiritual effort and literally gets swallowed up by the earth. Ostensibly, it is G-d who causes Korach to perish. But maybe it’s simply the power of human anger and hatred, coupled with the assumption that G-d doesn’t have enough love for us all, that consumes Korach and continues to undermine us today.

Just two weeks ago, I spent time in Israel with members of my congregation. While there, violence took place between Israel and Gaza, the tension palpable, the anger real, the self-righteousness on both sides quite often zealous and destructive. And, while we visited the northern border with Syria, we could view the tragic fallout from the ongoing Syrian crisis. How devastating and sad!

I’m not a geopolitician. So there are political nuances in the Mideast of which I don’t have command, but I am sure should not be ignored. I’m also not naive, and so against the backdrop of never-ending violence, it sadly seems unwise for anyone to let their guard down. But for me, if Judaism is to be the bridge between the world as it is and the world as it should be, then I shall not hesitate to turn to the light of parashat Korach and trust the peaceful alternatives of Torah’s wisdom. And as I think of the ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians, as I consider Syria’s civil war, as I reflect upon the challenges inherent in coexistence between Jews and Jews, Christians, and Muslims–between the three Abrahamic faith communities–I think the work ahead requires much of us all. And Torah can do its part.

When vehement reproach completely dominates compassion, deep listening, and love of neighbor, it’s hard to make moral progress; it’s near impossible to achieve peace. When self-righteous refusal by world leaders, including Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians, lead to zealous obstinance and strike terror among the innocent; when the pursuit of fanatic clarity continuously blinds zealots to the pain and suffering of real people, whether neighbors or enemies, for whom peace is an authentic goal; when the misappropriation of religious texts to occurs to justify violence and to dismiss the legitimate mourning of human families devastated by loss—we have serious problems for which we cannot remain silent.

Torah gives clear guidance on how to proceed toward peace. We can act like Moses and recognize that the loving spirit of G-d requires human beings to love their neighbors, to value their intrinsic worth and equality and to act with mutual responsibility for one another, paying close attention and caring about their triumphs and tragedies, their suffering and resilience, Or, we can act like Korach, perpetuating a self-righteous, single-minded, spiritually misguided, zealously-guarded campaign to undercut the safety and security of decent, loving and humble human beings who would much rather heal the world than destroy it, who would much rather collect and keep power rather than distribute and share it.

Stick with the example of Moses, and we will build a world of hope, fulfilment, and redemption. Follow the example of Kroch, and any zealot for that matter–no matter which side he or she may occupy–we just may get swallowed up by hatred and violence. Of course, I realize that moralizing about or with such zealots will hardly stir them to change. I also know that we may be hard-pressed to see the humanity in our enemies and adversaries (even Korach) when doing so might contribute to great healing. But ultimately, I recognize we can only change the world one person at a time. We start with ourselves and then we connect with others engaged in their own desire for change. And the more of us taking these small steps to make a difference, the greater the difference there will be. The more we will become a collective force for good. We don’t have to finish this big, audacious and sacred task, but we cannot ignore it, either. As a Jewish community, whenever we have opportunities to engage in conversation with one another, with Christians and Muslims, with anyone dedicated to peace, love and understanding. Let us call on ourselves to be more compassionate, to listen more deeply, to debate less and dialogue more. May our work cultivate more open-mindedness and shape a kinder world.

Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).

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