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Korach 5778 — “Parashat Killmonger”

June 15, 2018

A storied and isolated tribal community.  They have their own ways, their own laws, their own traditions and customs.  They are chosen for a holy mission.

And they are led by a forceful and charismatic leader. 

Until, one day, there is a revolt.

A man well respected in the community decides the leader is not doing a good job.  And creates a confrontation.  And the confrontation creates calamity.

Am I talking about this week’s Torah portion?  Parashat Korach, in which Korach and his band of 250 machers come after Moses and his brother Aaron?

Maybe.

Or am I talking about the fictional kingdom that is the setting of both comic book and cinematic glory?

The fictional kingdom of Wakanda, from Black Panther?

Maybe.

Now, for the record, I am by no stretch of anyone’s imagination a comic book or a superhero maven.  At the end of the day, I don’t know an Avenger from a Ninja Turtle.

But Anthony and I saw Black Panther.  Twice.

Once in 3-D.

It was a total triumph.  Not just the first wide-release, majority-black superhero movie, Black Panther was a lush meditation on colonialism, black empowerment, and leadership. 

But while I watched the film, it was in relation to that last topic — leadership, and challenges to leadership — that the rabbi in me couldn’t stop thinking about Korach and Moses.

To keep your attention, let’s start with Black Panther.   The title character, the leader of Wakanda, T’Challa, is a wise and benevolent leader.  His nemesis is Erik Killmonger.  Killmonger plans to forcibly dethrone T'Challa in order to accomplish his father's plan to seize control of the world.

Now Killmonger says he wants to come to power to stop the oppression of people of African descent all across the world. 

But what does he actually do when — briefly — he takes control of Wakanda?  He orders the burning of a wondrous plant called the “heart-shaped herb” — which affords super-human strength to anyone who ingests it — so no one can use their powers against him. 

Killmonger says he wants to end the oppression of his people.  What he really seems to want is more power. 

Which brings us to Korach.  Like I said, in this week’s parashah, Korach and his friends Dathan and Abiram join with a band of 250 machers — OK, the Torah calls them anshei shem, men of reknown — demand to know why Moses raises himself over the congregation. 

Kol ha-edah, kulam, k’dhoshim.  “All the community,” they cry in a public display of indignation. “All of them are holy!”[1]

Like Killmonger, Korach seems to be standing for principle.  Help the people.  All the people.

But the question of leadership, and who deserves it, is tricky. 

Sometimes would-be leaders give the right speeches.  But sometimes actions show a person’s true colors. 

Killmonger says he wants to help his people.  But what he really does is let his rage burn into a fire of destruction.

Similarly, Korach and the rebels say the whole community is holy.  But how do they do it?  With a public showdown.  And in doing so, they inject insecurity and anxiety into the community. 

In fact, when Moses invites Dathan and Abiram, they refuse.  Lo na’aleh!  Most English translations quote the pair to mean, “We won’t come!”

But lo na’aleh literally means “we won’t arise.”  Na’aleh, like aliyah, “going up.”  Or El Al, “to the heights.”

The 15th C. Portuguese Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel explains the curious verb. 

“Go back and tell Moses,” he imagines them telling the messenger, “that if he had summoned us with a pledge of some high appointment, or the promise of a boon that we would receive upon our arrival in the land of Israel” — then and only then — “we would have come to him.”

By now, the problem is clear.  Like Killmonger, Korach and his band pretend to want justice, but their actions indicate that what they most want is power.

They claim to stand for holy community.  But, given the chance, the both corrupt the community and compromise its holiness.

Perhaps you can tell as much from their names.  Killmonger chooses his name for, well, obvious reasons.  In the Torah, Abiram sounds like Avraham, “father of multitudes,” but means “my father is exalted” — exalted, perhaps in his private desires, above yours and mine.  Datan is related to dat, “law,” maybe using the rule of law to defeat the rule of love.

Korach’s name is related to karach, the Biblical word for baldness.

Korach’s supposedly principled demand is, perhaps, merely a bald-faced attempt to accrue prestige and power for himself.

All of this, of course, is tragic.  Tragic because of the destruction that these rebellions cause.  Tragic because, while we are distracted by infighting, we are ignoring our true enemies.  As I was writing this drash, I was informed of the anti-Jewish graffiti that had been found at A-B high school.

God forbid we are distracted by Korach when Amalek is around the corner.

But there’s more.  These stories are even more tragic than we might think at first blush because both Killmonger and Korach actually have a point.

Killmonger is right, in that his country of origin should be helping those in the African diaspora.  Like it says in Talmud (in reference to Jews), kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh.  “All Jews are responsible, one to another.”[2]

Korach too is right.  All of Israel is holy.  That message is as important today as it ever was, especially given the infighting that we see in too much of the Jewish community.

Imagine if Killmonger had spoken directly to T’Challa to plead for his people?  Imagine if Korach and his band had shared with Moses their concerns?  Imagine if, instead of public blaming and shaming, they had approached Moses respectfully — and privately.

Imagine what they could have achieved together.

For those of us who live in community and care about community, who serve on boards or who care about people who serve, there’s a powerful cautionary tale here.

You can have a good point, and still make it in a bad way.

As a rabbi, it’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way.

Making yourself an extremist doesn’t make you more right.  And martyrdom doesn’t make holiness. 

Wow, but sometimes it sure feels that way.  In the moment, it’s more gratifying to rage, to draw lines in the sand and howl into the night.

What’s harder is to sit with people we know, and be curious about our complicated selves.

What’s harder is to lean into the harsh edges of our differences.

What’s harder is to stay in community — even when it’s not the exact community of our dreams.

But maybe it’s time to take the advice of the Minnesoter rebbe, Nobel-prize winner Bob Dylan:

“I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”

Yes, all of this is harder.  But it’s more loving.  And more holy.  And, from my experience, usually more effective.

It’s a great blessing to continue growing this community with all of you.  May we learn the hard-earned lessons of Killmonger and Korach — refusing to let our differences alienate us from each other.

May we instead open our space, and our hearts, to the power and potential of our people, arguing together and listening together and loving each other together.  And building a truly holy community.

Together.

_____________________________________

[1] Numbers 16:3

[2] Talmud, Shevuot 39a

Mon, January 21 2019 15 Shevat 5779