D'var Torah, KOrah 5780/Saturday 26th September 2020

by Kesia Solomon

This d’var torah was meant to be read in June, but it was later changed to September this year due to Covid and that bat mitzvah being rescheuled.  The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

Kezia with her father and sister

Kezia with her father and sister

Korah and his friends Datan and Uviyram went together to Moses and the 250 men of the congregation to confront him, to ask why he had given himself so much power in the face of a community that were all supposed to be holy and equal. Korah was convinced that Moses had just been tricking people into thinking God had spoken to him just to gain power. Moses was outraged and in response, set Korah a challenge. He said that Korah and everyone else including himself, should take a firepan with incense in it and stand waiting with it outside the tabernacle, the holy tent, the next morning, and God would show them who was right and who was holy. Moses was especially angry because Korah was a Levite, and so already had privileges of his own. By the next morning everyone had prepared their firepans and stood waiting. God quickly made it clear Moses was right, and was so angry that Moses only just managed to convince God not to wipe out the whole community for this, and God settled for swallowing Korah, Datan and Uviyram, along with their families, up into the ground. God then let loose a fire that killed the 250 men who took Korah’s side in the challenge. The firepans that were left behind in the ashes, God demanded to be displayed as a warning to anyone else in the community. The next morning, everyone gathered against Moses and Aaron in anger, exclaiming that they had killed god’s people. All of a sudden, God appeared telling Moses and Aaron to stand back so that God could kill the rest of the community too. A plague was unleashed and Moses and Aaron pleaded with God for forgiveness . The plague stopped and 14,700 more people had been killed.

So this torah portion doesn’t seem to be telling a nice moral story atall. In fact it’s the opposite. Innocent people are killed by a figure they had respected and made into a role model just for suggesting the idea that their society could a have been a bit more equal to its citizens. So instead of taking a message from the storyline itself I wanted to think about what the characters Moses, Korah and God did that I thought was important.

So I think most of us already know that no one is perfect but the story has a really good way of showing that . God has taken on the role of the villain in this story- killing 15 thousand people because they were asking for a more equal community doesn’t exactly display the benevolence that God might have seemed to have before. It definitely doesn’t show the kindness I used to associate with the word ‘God’. This just shows again that no matter how perfect and unproblematic someone might seem, everyone has their own problems and downfalls, you probably just haven’t seen them yet. And if God isn’t perfect, then I don’t know who is.

One of the most important things this story can teach is from the actions of the protagonist, Korah. Although Korah ended up dieing because of his actions, what he did symbolizes something really important. Recently I was trying to master a trick on my skateboard, and the main reason I couldn’t do it was because I was too scared of falling off. At some point though, I realized that if I really wanted to master any trick on it, falling off would come with it. I needed to stop being so scared of falling and getting a few little bruises, because it was a small price to pay for learning a new trick and having fun! And this was what Korah did. Although he later ended up dying because he spoke his opinion and challenged God, it was something he probably saw was a possibility at the beginning. In which case he probably felt that he would rather not go along with what he didn’t believe was right and then die, than live with it. He was prepared to risk his life to do what he believed in.  Not that that’s something I would probably ever end up doing. Its just that in the same way, Korah wanted to do what he believed he should do so much that he thought falling off the skateboard like that would be worth it. He probably knew he could end up with a terrible punishment from God, and had time to back out of the challenge, but chose not to. We shouldn’t be afraid to have some falls on the way to acheiving something we really want, because sometimes its just a small price to pay.

Something else this portion tells us is that learning to question authority, and anything in your everyday is usually a good thing. Which seems weird to say straight after reading a story about thousands of people who were murdered directly because they tried to do that. Its because it all depends on the environment we do it in. There are oppressed countries living under dictatorships and places here like strict schools where stepping forward and showing you don’t agree with something will only bring punishment. Whereas, in the society that we live in today, there are loads of places where its okay to speak your opinion, and to challenge things we don’t think are needed or are doing the right job. Its so important to be able to readjust and change things as time goes on, because just like food, things go out of date. This kind of thing we do all the time in our everyday lives.  Like getting rid of a product that doesn’t sell so well in a shop anymore. Or starting to replace some of your household items with more eco friendly stuff to help the planet. In the right environment, it doesn’t cost us to stop and rethink, well only come out knowing that what we questioned really is something worth keeping or the opportunity to improve. There is also the re-election of the party in government every four years, which is the same idea. This is all also fundamental to the idea of Liberal Judaism. The idea of readjusting and rethinking and keeping things relevant. Whilst many extremely important traditions are kept, other things that are not so important or relevant have been taken away so that we can still practice Judaism and do what’s important to us while still being able to live in the time that we are in, and live our lives well.

The story also kind of reminded to never think in black and white and to never assume. Mainly because a lot of the time we wont really be able to narrow something down far enough to say it is either good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair. When Moses tells Korah to wait till morning to do the challenge, it seems as if he may be giving Korah time to think over his decision, as Moses knows Korah will inevitabley lose because he has spoken to God himself. Moses also does his best to try and save some of the people God is trying to kill. At first I was confused, until I realized that when I’d taken Korah’s side, I had also just assumed that Moses was in agreement with all of Gods actions and was also a villain, when really he wasn’t. He just didn’t have the same views as korah but wasn’t evil.  For example, like in this case, when you are in an argument with someone, have you ever found yourself being able to see why the person on the other side thinks what they do or even think that maybe they might have points that are partly right? Like God in the story, from a different perspective, God has created this whole planet, if it weren’t for God, none of these people would ever have even been thought up, let alone existed to be having this argument. When you think about it like that you can see why God would have been offended and angry. I may not be on God’s side exactly, but I guess I can see where God is coming from and see some sort of reason for God’s actions. So of course you can sometimes be in a situation where you are in complete disagreement with the other side or think a rule is completely unfair but a lot of the time we are in the vast grey area in between, we are on a spectrum of agreement you could say. Which is also similar to my own view of the torah.

At the beginning of my Bat Mitzvah lessons, I asked if I could change my portion to something else, but it didn’t end up working out. I was not sure if it was considered okay to not agree with the Torah, but ive now realized that although it is ancient and sacred, it doesn’t mean we are permitted only to accept them and just debate about what it means, we can also debate about what is says and whether we agree with it. And I still don’t particularly like my portion, but im really glad that I carried on and found an aspect of the story I could take something from and find good in, because in a way it just made things more interesting. Studying this portion also opened my eyes and made me rethink the underlying assumptions I had about certain characters, assumptions I had been taught to have by tv shows and books, as Torah stories are very different from any other stories, in part because of their harshness, but mainly because of how old they are. They have outlived almost any other type of story around today, and so none of the popular techniques and styles used in more recent story writing can apply here.  I’ve also discovered that doing a Bat Mitzvah doesn’t just mean learning the Hebrew alphabet and having more homework, its something you can have fun with. For me it meant learning more about and understanding my faith in an interesting way, and also learning about my own ancestors’ history, and before I started my lessons I didn’t realize that I would enjoy it as much as I have. But now I feel a bit like ive discovered more of myself, and ive properly established my relationship with Judaism, and it is a pretty good religion to be part of. Something else ive learned is that to be jewish or even to be a rabbi you don’t have to believe in god. For me Judaism is all about the community and it doesn’t actually matter so much that you are extremely devoute and strict about following things, often its the thought that counts, because if I miss kiddush for something important, then I know ive tried and im happy with that.

 And im really happy that I ended up taking the risk of deciding to do a bat mitzvah, because at the beginning I wasn’t even sure If I wanted to do one, and I was scared that I would regret it and find out later that actually I didn’t really want to do it. But I did and it turned out to be a really good decision, and luckily, unlike korach, I haven’t been swallowed up into a hole for taking the risk, or anything like that. In fact it’s the opposite, because I have sort of received a reward. And no, not the presents or the money (although that too) but the reward of success and pride in how far i’ve come.