07 June 2013

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Korach 5773

29 Sivan 5773
Erev Shabbat / Rosh Chodesh


Korach: Condemner of generations
by Daniel Pinner on Friday, June 7, 2013


The Talmudic sage Rabba taught that when a Jew dies and stands in the place of eternal judgment, he is asked six questions: Were you honest in business and trade? Did you set fixed time to study Torah? Did you beget children? Did you look forward to the Redemption? Did you use your wisdom to fathom the intricacies of Torah? Did you use one subject to understand another? (Shabbat 31a).
.
Elsewhere, the Talmud (Yoma 35b) gives examples of excuses that Jews give for having neglected Torah: I was so poor that I never had time or effort for Torah; I was so wealthy that my whole time was devoted to my business; I was extremely sensual and passionate, and my passions distracted me. To each of these there is a response: Were you poorer than Hillel? Were you wealthier than Rabbi Elazar? Were you more beautiful, more sensually passionate, than Joseph?
.
We all have our excuses for neglecting Torah, and objectively it is true that we all face our own challenges. But the Talmud teaches us that no matter what your particular weakness may be, others who came before us, greater than us by far, faced the same obstacles, the same lusts, the same temptations, yet overcame them to become among the greatest and most devout Jews who ever lived.
.
Earlier this week, I spent a few days in one of the more affluent and more religious Jewish communities in London, England. Speaking to a few Jews there and broaching the subject of aliyah, I heard similar responses from many people. Why do we need to make aliyah? What do we have in Israel that we lack here?
.
On the face of it, it is very difficult to refute those questions. Within 15 minutes´ walk of where I was staying there were five synagogues, three kosher delis, two kosher butchers, six kosher restaurants, and three Jewish schools. An eruv surrounds the community. What more can a religious Jew ask for?
.
What more?!
.
The Land of Israel, that´s what! In the Jew´s daily life, the single most recurrent theme in our prayers is the Return to Zion. In the Blessings before the Shema and the Blessings after the Shema (morning and night),a dozen times in the Amidah (morning, afternoon, and night), in the Grace after Meals, in every celebration (wedding, circumcision, and so on) – maybe forty times a day the Jew prays in different words for the Return to Zion.
.
If there was ever a generation which could have been justified in saying: What will we have in Israel that we don´t have here? – That was the generation of the Sinai Desert. They were fed Manna from Heaven, they had a sheltered life in the Sinai Desert, they learnt Torah directly from Moshe. And having grown up under Pharaoh´s whips, they would have been delighted simply not to be slaves. Independence? The Land of Israel? Aliyah? – Yes, inspiring ideals. But for them, simply to be free to live as good Jews without their skin being cut by those cruel whips must have been a veritable paradise.
.
And then came the sin of the spies. How the nation wept when they were told that they would never enter the good Land that G-d had decreed for them!
.
In this week´s Parashah we encounter two rebellions against Moshe. The first is Korach´s, the second is Dathan´s and Abiram´s. These two rebellions were born of the despair of a nation which had been condemned never to enter the Land of Israel.
.
But what was their despair? They had everything and more that any Jew in north London or Crown Heights can aspire for. Yet they were plunged into such gloom by that decree that these demagogues could latch on to their disappointment.
.
If the poorest of Jews who neglected Torah because of their poverty will be challenged: Were you then poorer than Hillel? And if the wealthiest of Jews who neglected Torah because of their wealth will be challenged: Were you then wealthier than Rabbi Elazar? And if the most sensually passionate of Jews who neglected Torah because of their sensual passion will be challenged: Were you then more sensually passionate than Joseph? – Maybe the affluent and religiously comfortable Jewish communities in exile today will likewise be challenged: Were you better off than your ancestors were in the Sinai Desert?
.
Did you have G-d´s Clouds of Glory by Day? Or His Pillar of Fire by night? For sure, you had your kosher supermarkets and pizzerias and falafel joints – but did you have Manna? Could your Jewish day schools and Yeshivot compete with Moshe´s teaching?
.
If the generation which had all that, and which ostensibly should have been delighted simply to be free of the whips, was plunged into such despair at being deprived of coming to the Land of Israel, so much so that Korach and Dathan and Abiram could play on those emotions so devastatingly successfully – how will any Jew who decides, in this generation, to remain in exile answer the question: Were you sincere and honest all those dozens of times every day that you prayed to return to Zion?