Parshat Korach

Every time I meet a rabbi or pastor who now is a full-time stock broker, a realtor, an entrepreneur with a storefront business or an export-import firm (not to mention a lawyer, an accountant, or even a therapist) — and I ask why they left the rabbinate — the answer typically is the same

Rabbi Sidney Applebaum of Cong. Beth Judah in Brooklyn, the shulwhere I grew up, used to say from his pulpit that he waits all year to deliver the sermon for the Torah potion of Korach.

In Korach, we encounter jealous relatives of Moses and his brother, Aaron the High Priest, as those malcontents stir up a rebellion of broader disaffection among the Jews. Two recurring agitators, Dasan and Aviram, emerge rapidly as two supportive ringleaders from outside the family, and they soon craft a coalition of 250 prominent leaders among the three million Jews of the Wilderness, who also want a piece of the action.

So the political rebellion picks up steam. Instead of the obvious and true reasons for the rebellion — Korach is jealous that Moses is the political leader, Aaron the leading theological personage, while other relatives in the Tribe of Levi seem overlooked for power, prestige, glory, and fame — the political uprising now can be presented as a wider spread sociological upheaval. Dasan and Aviram, non-Levites, clearly are not “in it” for family jealousy. And now, with 250 “respectable leaders” clamoring for their slice of the pie, suddenly Moses is confronted with a real political mess. “You take too much [authority] for yourselves,” the defiant ringleaders proclaim. (Numbers 16:1-3).

Moses is not a politician, and there is no one more modest and humble than he. (Numbers 12:3) He is not made of the stuff of politics and power-seeking, and he would be only too happy to remain in private life.(Exodus 3:11, 4:10) He has no ambition to fight for political survival and, frankly, would walk away from it all if G0d would allow it. (Deut. 1:12) Ultimately, it takes a miracle from G0d to maintain Moses’ position. (16:31-32).

Politics can be a terrible thing. Although there seems no system for governing large assemblages of people that offers more hope and possibility than self-governance through democratically elected institutions that vie freely for the support of the public, politics also brings out the worst in many. In America, Democrats find fault in virtually everything that George Bush — take your pick — ever did or said. Republicans find fault in virtually everything pertaining to or emanating from Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Regardless whether one is liberal or conservative, or somewhere else along the political continuum, party politics often becomes cynical and appalling. Although government of the people, by the people, and for the people offers the greatest hope and the most freedom of any system, politics also can poison the soul. Just turn on the news — cable networks like MSNBC, Fox, or CNN, or the original networks. And think of Israel, with more than a dozen such parties.

In thirty years of public life, sometimes I have misspoken or mispronounced a word, even uttered a grammatical malapropism. Sometimes because I was tired, sometimes because my mind was racing three paragraphs ahead of what I was saying. However, I am not famous, rarely am video-recorded, and thus have survived.

As venomous as secular politics can be when partisans engage in character assassination to vie for power and prestige, the matter becomes so much more dispiriting when Korach-style politics comes into the synagogue or church. A new pastor is hired, or a rabbi or cantor, and the search committee’s opposing minority vows that she will never have a day’s peace.

Soon , the cynics are “making lists,” and there begins a very tragic congregational descent into what might be termed “the other kind of clergy abuse.” How well selected does the pastor select his ties? Does the rabbi iron her skirt, or can satellite images from outer space detect wrinkles? And when will she stop arriving at services only on time, when the list-makers demand that she always arrive five minutes early?

This is what touched the very core of Rabbi Applebaum, who actually was loved and served his congregation with love — and had a lifetime contract. He had seen destructive efforts advanced against some of his closest colleagues and friends through many forms and vehicles, as list-makers slandered, meandered through the weekly Kiddush collation while spreading criticisms, and built social alliances through carpools, coffee klatches, bowling matches, and poker games.

Moses and Aaron the High Priest held power without mobilizing voters to stand with them. They did not campaign or take polls. They did not engage in “spin” or “damage control.” Rather, G0d opened the mouth of the earth, and it swallowed the rebellious. No chads to count.

But JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein, in his Tending the Vineyard, notes that the phenomenon does not always end that neatly. Nor is this tragic phenomenon unique to the Jewish people — and we do owe it to ourselves to recognize that, too. G. Lloyd Rediger makes that clear in Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack, as does Kenneth Haugk in Antagonists in the Church. In literature, stage, and screen, one is reminded of even more tragic figures: Sir Thomas More (“A Man for All Seasons”) and St. Thomas Beckett, for example. Even outside the House of Worship context, the late Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg wondered whether more of our six million martyrs might have been saved during the 1940s if some of our secular organizations had not similarly been plagued by organizational politics.

To this day, every time I meet a rabbi or pastor who now is a full-time stock broker, a realtor, an entrepreneur with a storefront business or an export-import firm (not to mention a lawyer, an accountant, or even a therapist) — and I ask why they left the rabbinate — the answer typically is the same. It was not to leave to make more money, although they now do earn more. He did not lose his passion to serve G0d or to pastor a flock. Rather, “I just couldn’t take the politics anymore.”

Thank G0d, Moses had G0d to steer him through the Korach rebellion with seismic support. Otherwise, if Moses and Aaron had needed to hit the Sunday talk show circuits, we might never have made it to the Promised Land