Sunday, June 22, 2014

Korach and Demagoguery

Korach and Demagoguery

            A few weeks ago, there were ceremonies commemorating D-DAY, the Beginning of the end of the battle against Hitler's Third Reich.
            However, if you ask the historians, and get beyond our own PR-- it was not the American and British forces that broke the backbone of Hitler's army, but the Red Army, which lost
20,000,000 Soviet soldiers to get rid of the pestilence, Hitler. 
            At this commemoration, the 70th anniversary, Putin, representing Russia was invited, probably to make up for a snub to the Russians 50 years ago when they were not invited.
            Then, the Russian government was peeved at not being involved in the celebrations, remember that this was shortly after the Soviet system had fallen and the Iron Curtain had come down.. Now, the Russian government was invited, and the irony is that new kind of curtain is going up around Russian and around territories along its borders.
            There was a good reason, though, not to commemorate the Russian participation at D-Day! We did commemorate the liberation on the western front, but not on the eastern front.
            In the aftermath of the war, the western front, from France to the Oder-Neisse line, was liberated, but the eastern front, from East Germany and  Czechoslovakia till Bulgaria, were finally liberated some 40 years later. Although those lands were freed of Hitler, they had, instead, Stalin and the Partia Lenina, Partia Stalina.
            I bring up this distinction not for the sake of historical triviality. It is to make it clear that to fight to destroy an enemy is not enough. What is crucial is what replaces that enemy--what kind of society is created.
            Demagoguery of the left, made in the name of class warfare and the proletariat, has proved little better than demagoguery of the right, made in the name of race or the State.
            As Jews, we should be especially suspicious of anyone who claims to possess the instant answers to society's ills. We have an insight into this from our Torah and Haftarah reading.    
            In our Torah reading, Korach makes claim to a share of the power of Moses, and, as a result, the earth opens up and swallows him and his company. We who live in Los Angeles are always aware of what Korah and his company must have experienced.
            There is a telling account in the Midrash, in which the wife of one of the would be rebels tells her husband, " What are you up in arms for. Now, that Moses is the leader, you are just a follower. However,  when Korah becomes the leader, you will still just be a follower."
            Indeed, Korach leader with the classic statement of the revolutionary:” For all the community is sacred and G-d is in their midst!”. Under Korach, all would be equal!      But the wife in this ancient Midrash understood the sub-context of Korach’s message.
            It is a telling variation of that line in George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which he describes the democracy of communists-"- All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
            The nature of the demagogue- fascist, communist, arch-nationalist, religious militant- is to promise power to the powerless and wealth to the wealth less, and then, of course, to hog it all for himself.
            The Jewish reluctance to allow any one human being ultimate authority is stated eloquently in a Biblical tale, the parable of Yotham. It is in the time of the judges, when the children of Israel were a loose confederation of tribes, each under its own tribal leader. There are signs of the beginnings of consolidation of these tribes, especially in the face of foreign invaders, and we see the rise of strong political leaders who look to aggrandize their power
            Abimelech, the son of Gideon, convinced his fellow tribesmen  that it would be better to have one united ruler rather than divide power among his 70 brothers. The people agreed, whereupon, he set out to assassinate all but one of the brothers, Jotham, who managed to escape. The people gathered to make Abimelekh their king ( Judges 9) at which point Jotham challenged them with this tale:
“Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’
“But the olive tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my oil, which is how God and humans are honored, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’
10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be king over us!’
11 “The fig tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’
12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and be king over us!’
13 “But the vine replied to them, ‘Should I stop providing my wine that makes God and humans happy, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’
14 “Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us!’
15 “And the thornbush replied to the trees, ‘If you’re acting faithfully in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the thornbush and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.’
16 “ He wrapped up his speech:Let fire come out from Abimelech and burn up the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo and burn up Abimelech.”
            That is the summation of what brings people to leadership in a lawless society. Of course, Jotham had to escape for his life at that moment.
            In our Haftarah, Samuel, just a few generation later, acts as king-maker, yet he is full of misgivings.  Samuel is a charismatic leader, without an army behind him, who led the people of Israel to regain their lost lands. His power came only from the willingness of the people to listen to him as the spokesman for God.
            This is not enough. The people clamor for a hero, a savior, with the force of arms behind him, a king, melech, who will force them join together and lead them aganist their enemies by the power of the authority of his office, kechol hagoyim-Just like any other nation.  That desire for political power, national prestige, is , an act of rebellion against God.
            Samuel warns them--A king will merely take your sons and daughters to be your slaves, to serve him and to make war with them. The Jewish people, he teaches, can have only one king, which is God.
            Our Torah recognized the dangers of dictatorship. To the south was Egypt, run by a Pharaoh, a god, of absolute power, and to the North were the Mesopotamian empires, run by absolute monarchs, also designated as divinities.
            It is our Torah which established principles embodied in modern government:
            The ruler may not amass wealth, may not take the luxury of an unlimited harem, may not amass a military force for any purpose other than national defense and, above all, the leader is subject to a body of law. Some kind of ruler!
            It is the pagan wife of King Ahab who must teach her impotent husband how to expropriate property. “ Now you are going to act like a King of Israel,” as she proceeds to have the land owner tried and executed by a kangaroo court and the land taken over by eminent domain. That’s government in the Middle East, then , and today, and in much of the world!
            It is our Torah which is the first document that I know of to affirm the limits of power. 2000 years ago, the Jewish historian, Josephus, explained to his Roman readers these very concepts, and spoke of "division of powers" and "Check" by priesthood and by prophets. It is the very concept of checks and balances which, two thousand years later surfaced as our Constitutions principal of " Checks and balances".       
            If we have, set herein, the limits of power, we must also ask ourselves, to what purpose, to what goal should power, whether of the government, or society, be put. As I said, we celebrate D-D to affirm the values of our democratic society against dictatorship--but if we stand against, we must also stand for something.
            Again, throughout our Torah we have clear indications of the theme that should permeate our society.
            --Shoftim ve shotrim--we are told--you shall establish judges and executive officers in your towns and cities-- we are commanded to have a well functioning legal and courts system.
            Tsedek tsedek tirdof--Justice , justice shall you pursue. Literally, we have obligations to establish proper methods of testimony and  impartiality of the judges, as well as a system of appeals. Figuratively, our Rabbis taught that the pursuit of justice demanded that we seek to prevent injustice from taking place.   
            It is clear from the Torah, as well, that a just society had to establish a safety net, so that the poor would never be abandoned and so that all would have a chance to build up their lives. The Jewish ideal of social justice was to provide every one with the tools, skills, and means to become self-supporting and free of any need for a hand-out.
            Finally, as we look back to D- Day of 50 years ago, and to the sacrifices made to preserve this nation, we ask what goals we have as a nation.
            Can a society survive, for example, if its goal is only the pursuit of happiness?
            Judaism has its answer. To a great extent, American Christianity shares in that perspective.
            Happiness in life was found in a rich moral and spiritual life.
            Business in Jewish tradition was always with appreciation of the benefits and an awareness of the societal dangers.
            Judaism spurned the cult of violence and machismo which endangers so many.
            Jews and Judaism hold public education for values  a sacred responsibility.
            Finally, our sages looked at the quarrel of Korah and his company. Our sages loved quarrels and controversy. They never believed in a society in which all marched to the same drummer.
            They did question, however, the motives behind any controversy.
            " Any controversy which is for the sake of heaven-- for the sake of finding the truth, of finding out what is the good to be done--like the debates of Hillel and Shammai--such controversies are eternal.” Hillel and Shammai and their students continue debating to all eternity!
            " But any controversy which is not for the sake of heaven--the controversy of Korah, which was for self-aggrandizement and power alone-- such a controversy has no future." There is no debate-it is a bogus straw man, and as such, can never foster any further discussion.

            For our society--may it also be split, in dispute, in argumentation, in debate, all for the sake of heaven, so that we never be swallowed in the earth, but exist forever. Amen

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