Standing on Shaky Ground: Shabbat Korach, Friday, June 19, 2020

It’s mid-June and we are moving into the hot season. The grills are going. The grass needs cutting. But summer is never really summer without baseball.

There is no baseball. No major league games on TV. No Curve games at the Altoona ballpark. The Curve are smart enough to have drive-through Curve Burger days. But, as yummy as they are, a Curve Burger minus a Curve game is a less-than-satisfying substitute (except for Don. Don really only goes to Curve games for the burgers).

I miss baseball – a pastime I fell in love with as a child when I went to the ballpark with my dad. It must have been love. My home team was the woeful Washington Senators.

Now, I know the lack of baseball seems like a minor-league issue (so to speak) when we’re dealing with a pandemic that is already roaring back in many states – including down here in South Carolina.

Here’s the way my top sports theologian, Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal, put it into perspective this week.

“There are serious crises in this country,” Gay wrote, “history-defining moments for public health, the economy, and equality and justice – and the absence of baseball just doesn’t rise to the top of the list of Most Important Things.”[1]

No, it doesn’t. But it is a symbol of the tectonic shifts that this pandemic has wrought in our country. It is a sign that we will likely never go back to what was considered “normal” just a few months ago. The way we shop, the way we work, the way we amuse ourselves and educate our children, the daily choices we make on where we go and what we do and who we are with – all of that is changing. Maybe permanently.

Navigating a safe path when the ground seems to shift beneath you on a day-to-day basis is never easy. But it’s made more difficult by those who have dismissed the coronavirus as a hoax, or who have derided the restrictions as somehow un-American, or who have tossed caution to the wind and floored it when the light goes from red to yellow to green.

Many people have learned to balance on uneven ground, finding new ways to be kind and patient and considerate of others who may be more vulnerable to the virus. But others exhibit whole new ways to show how selfish and inconsiderate they are.

Our ancestors knew something about tectonic changes, as they quickly departed Egypt – where at least they knew where they stood and how they would be treated – and spent a lifetime in the wilderness, where they hadn’t a clue. As we saw in last week’s story of the twelve scouts, some rose to the challenges for the sake of the community, and some of them retreated into themselves.

But in this week’s story, the people face a literal earth-shaking moment as their faith in their leaders (and in God) is tested. Korach – a Levite born to stature and privilege in the Israelite community – has decided to take on the leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.

He riles up a crowd among the Israelites – including tribal leaders – on the premise that there ought to be more equality in the camp. “You have gone too far!” Korach declares to Moses and Aaron. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation!”

Moses does not take the bait. Instead, he falls on his face, a posture of supplication and humility to God – and a reminder to the people that he himself did not want to be in charge, did not lust for power. It was God who chose Moses and put his brother Aaron at his side.

The challenge does not go well for Korach and his followers. God warns Korach’s followers to stay away from him – physically far from him – because God’s wrath will soon be upon them. Sure enough, the ground begins to shake, it bursts open, and Korach and anyone who stayed with him is swallowed up by the earth, along with all their wives and children. And the earth closes over them.

Why does this happen? What it is about Korach’s demand for power-sharing that’s so wrong?

The rabbis point to the very first words of this Parashah: Vayikach Korach. “Korach betook himself.” Rashi and other commentators understand the phrase this way: “Korach took himself to one side, splitting off from the community in order to protest Aaron’s being given the priesthood.”

Let’s think of Korach as the equivalent of a social-media influencer of today – somebody who, through self-promotion and pure chutzpah, makes himself into a passing celebrity and entices other people to follow him. His goal isn’t to enhance other peoples’ lives but to enrich himself.

What Korach really wanted was the prestige of the priesthood but not the responsibilities. His dispute was completely selfish. And those who were fooled by him were destroyed with him.

Korach would be the guy, in our community, who refuses to wear a mask and refuses to social distance and refuses to wash his hands – because, he contends, the community should be free of such encumbrances.

In fact, he just doesn’t like to follow rules, even those that are created to protect the community. And those who follow his example are at far greater risk to become ill, and to pass the illness onto their loved ones.

The rabbis have a description for this. In the rabbinic text known as Pirke Avot, the ethical sayings of the early rabbis from the 3rd-century law code of the Mishnah, they hold up the example of Korach וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם -as a dispute that is “not for the sake of heaven.”[2] That is, Korach did not have the best interests of the community at heart. He was selfish and greedy. He thought only of himself.

There couldn’t be a stronger contrast to Korach’s behavior than the Temple’s annual meeting, which our President, Michael Holzer, led on Zoom Wednesday evening. We had to have a hard discussion about what to do with upcoming services and events, including the High Holy Days.

Dr. Andy Gurman, our ritual chair and a former president of the American Medical Association, made a strong presentation and a call for on-line services only, a proposal with which I wholeheartedly agree. We love the High Holy Days. We love seeing in the New Year together, sharing the bimah with so many of you, hearing the beautiful and haunting music that is unique to the Days of Awe.

But we also know that you can be as cautious as possible, adhere to the rules as much as possible, and still cause harm. Just this week, a church gathering in Lewisburg, West Virginia, led to at least 33 diagnosed cases of Covid-19. “We do not understand the source of the outbreak. To the best of our ability we followed the guidelines that were given to us,” said a leader of the church.[3] But the virus doesn’t care. So we have to.

We were prepared for a difficult conversation Wednesday night. But that didn’t happen. The members of our kehillah kedoshah, our holy community, chose the path of safety and protection for us all. This, truly, was a conversation l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Exactly the path a holy community should take.

I want to say one final word about baseball, because there’s a story in today’s Wall Street Journal that is a perfect example of how this concept of l’shem shamayim works in life outside of religion.[4] Jared Diamond writes about the Kansas City Royals, who have signed five undrafted players listed in Baseball America’s Top 500 rankings. No other team, writes Diamond, has signed more than three. Why are young players flocking to the Royals?

Because they are selflessly taking care of their own.

Nearly every other major-league baseball team has released scores of minor-league players, after waffling on even paying them at all during the pandemic. The Royals kept every single prospect.

It doesn’t make much financial sense. But their general manager, Dayton Moore, had other reasons:

“The minor-league players, the players you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or High-A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game as a 10-year or 15-year veteran player,” he said. So while other teams were more selfishly looking after their bottom line, the Royals are thinking of the welfare human beings, as well as the future of they game they all love.

As we move through these turbulent times, we become more and more aware that whatever awaits us in the future will not be the “normal” of the past. Maybe it will be better. Maybe it will make us stronger, more appreciative, more caring. At our Shabbat services on Zoom, we’ve had many regular attendees who would not be able to attend in person, and more than a few who live far away and have found our on-line community to be a great comfort.

We will use this model as we move forward. We will do our best to make our on-line High Holy Days as beautiful and meaningful and personal as we can. I’m so proud to be a part of this congregation. As I begin my eleventh year as your spiritual leader, I admire you all so greatly. Thank you for being courageous and for taking care of one another as well as yourselves.

And we will do it all l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Jason Gay, “If There’s No Baseball, Will You Miss It,” Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, p. A16.

[2] Mishnah Avot 5:17.

[3] Jessica Mouser, “WV Gov Says ‘Please Wear Masks’ After 5th Church Outbreak,” June 15, 2020.

[4] Jared Diamond, “The Royals Are Taking Advantage Of a New Market Inefficiency,” The Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 19, 2020, p. A14.

2 thoughts on “Standing on Shaky Ground: Shabbat Korach, Friday, June 19, 2020

  1. I am neither sports-minded nor even mildly interested in baseball, as you probably know, and yet I’m close to tears by the end of yet another wonderful sermon, my friend. The notion that we need to take care of one another is strong now, more than ever, and there is no better call to humility and selflessness than these words you have given us here as a gift. Thank you.

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