Parashat Korach (Commentary 2)">Parashat Korach (Commentary 2)


Korach is a fascinating Torah Portion because, as happens so often when the Torah narrates real-life events, the characters “ring incredibly true” to our own life experiences.  We all know superficially good people, who have so much going for them, yet who propel themselves down an horrific course of self-destruction, driven solely by unabated jealousy or incomprehensible animus. That intense jealously, often born of an overwhelming inferiority complex, frequently finds its nearest convenient outlet when targeted at the pastor, the priest, the rabbi.

“How many times do I have to explain it to you?  It is simple.  I hate his guts.”

This kind of hatred, driven by anything from personal instability to a personal sense of inadequacy to pure jealousy, plays itself out remarkably in Parshat Korach.  Korach had everything.  He was of dynastic heritage, born into the nobility of the Levite tribe.  (16:9)  That assured him of extraordinary importance from the moment that his Mom finished pushing, and the words “It’s a boy!” were spoken.

He also was extraordinarily charismatic.  Beyond gathering at his side the ubiquitous Datan and Aviram, he successfully assembled among his champions the cream of post-Exodus society:  250 “heads of the tribes, elect personages, men of renown.”  (16:2)  He was articulate, fearless, and authoritative.  He had it all.

But he wanted more than all.  He wanted what Aaron the Kohen had. (16:10)  Impelled by this driving jealousy to be even more important, he led his followers and brought himself to utter destruction.

These past five years, I quietly have played a national role as a point-man among my colleagues in the Rabbinical Council of America in cases where rabbis have been targeted by members of their congregations for the politics of destruction.  Rabbis phone or email me and describe circumstances.  I listen and read, then speak with responsible lay leadership at their congregations to learn more.  In each and every case, I am struck by how dearly loved these rabbis are by a majority of their shul.  Yet, inexorably, a small coterie of jealous, hateful, or otherwise driven Korachs — by virtue of their status within the congregation, whether as Temple Officers or Board members or primary donors or just-plain functionaries — carry the fight to drive out the rabbi because, well, they hate his guts.  It always comes down to that: they just hate his guts with all the same caustic and destructive intensity that brought Korach to utter ruination.

I consult with congregational memberships and am fascinated by that majority who, though they like or even love the rabbi, just want peace and quiet, and do not otherwise want to get involved. So, expressing discomfort and some guilt, they acquiesce to the campaign to kick the rabbi out of town.  Perhaps most fascinating are the cases where a rabbi has devoted his own time and life, his family’s time and planned vacations, time with his wife or children, to help an individual congregant sinking in a desperate personal crisis turn his or her life around.  And then, after the rabbi has virtually saved that person’s life — preserving a marriage, restoring a ruptured relationship between parent and child, helping an individual in crisis to overcome the greatest challenge in her life — that person suddenly, inexplicably, turns on the rabbi with a vengeance a year or two later.

My clergy colleagues across the denominations and faiths — Reform rabbis, Conservative rabbis, pastors, priests — all have encountered the phenomenon.  Essentially, the person whom the pastor has helped now cannot face her pastor because, now that the clergy person has virtually saved her life, she simply cannot abide that someone living in her ambit has seen her, now a successful pillar in the community, when she previously was utterly despondent.  So, upon seeing her pastor, she is thinking: “Pastor Jones knows me behind my veil and facade.  She knows who I really am.  She knows my vulnerability, has seen me cry and shake, and that is what Pastor is thinking every time she sees me.  So I need to get her driven out of here.”

But what Pastor Jones actually is thinking is: “Let’s see.  If I make the credit card minimum payment on Thursday, then I think I can swing getting this month’s mortgage paid by the eighth, two days before the bank assesses the penalty.  And I hope my kid remembered to buy more milk today because I used up the last bit this morning at breakfast.  And when is my daughter going to get a real job?”  That is what the pastor is thinking, as her clergy-killer is planning to get her fired and driven out of town.

The Korach phenomenon — the Clergy-Killer — is so commonplace that Christian theologians even have coined the term.  When you study this week’s Torah portion, think about your rabbi.  Think about her guts and her mortgage.  Ask yourself whether, if you could do it again, you would study years in seminary and then live in a fish bowl the rest of your professional life.  Give her a break, and enjoy living above ground.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an attorney, legal consultant, and adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and at UCI School of Law, is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California.