These days, what happens in tonight’s Torah portion would be billed as a battle for the ages, available exclusively on pay-per-view. In one corner, the defending champions: Moses and Aaron of the tribe of Levi – God’s chosen leaders for the Jewish nation. In the other corner, their most formidable challenger yet: their first cousin Korach, the fan favorite among the likes of Dathan and Abiram, rallying from the tribe of Reuben.
It’s a match concocted in testosterone alley: mano a mano – or perhaps macho a macho, since nary a woman is seen in this entire episode.
Korach is incensed that, of all the tribe of Levi, only Aaron and his sons are awarded the high priesthood. Dathan and Abiram question Moses’s leadership capabilities, though they offer none of their own.
The two sets of grievances combine on the main stage as they publicly challenge Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy – all of them! – and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”
In a show of strength clothed in humility, Moses falls on his face at hearing this challenge but warns them: “Come morning, God will make known who is God’s and who is holy.” He challenges them on Aaron’s terms: with competing fire pans and incense laid on the altar, to see whose offering God will choose.
The next morning, Korach gathers the crowds – in fact, the Torah says he gathers “Kol ha-eidah” – the entire community – at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The presence of God appears, but God speaks only to Moses and Aaron, warning them to step away from Korach and his band, and for all the Israelites to do the same.
The ground under the leaders of the rebellion bursts open,
“and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. . . and a fire went forth from God and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense.”
That would totally have been worth the $49.95 on pay-per-view.
But apparently the people didn’t like that the fight ended in the first round. The next day the whole community rose up again against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of bringing death to God’s people. So God sent a plague to wipe out the complainers: 14,700 died before Aaron checked the plague.
Afterward, God reaffirmed the selection of Aaron and his sons as the High Priests and the rest of the Levite men as their assistants at the Tent of Meeting: “To be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact.”
God bestows Aaron and his sons with a priesthood called “avodat matanah,” a service of dedication. And God declares anyone else who encroaches on that holy space will be put to death.
Now that ought to do it.
I thought it was important to emphasize the purely masculine aspect of this fierce and public battle for control of the Israelite nation – for a couple of reasons. First, although women do play important roles in our ancient stories, they’re absent here. It’s like the wives and daughters said: Hey, you guys work this out among yourselves. We’re staying out of it – it’s not our fight.
The second reason I wanted to share this perspective on Korach’s rebellion was that I had the honor this week of being part of the event committee for a very important virtual conference by the Women’s Rabbinic Network. We called this convention “Journey to 50,” as we kick off a year of celebration leading to next spring’s 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand.
Sally was at the heart of our celebration. But our conference was about a lot more than that. It was a celebration of every woman who has command of a bimah or a religious school or a social justice organization. It was a celebration of the way women’s voices and demands have changed the face of the rabbinate – and indeed the Jewish world. It was a celebration of women all over the world whose stories we were hearing for the first time.
Months ago, when we first talked about the idea of my emceeing panels of women ordained in each decade, I thought it was really important to select colleagues who aren’t famous – who aren’t published authors or senior rabbis in huge congregations. Who aren’t the go-to people for newspapers or magazines or television shows. A number of the colleagues we invited were surprised to be asked: they said they didn’t think their stories were unique or important enough.
But as we convened one panel after another, representing one generation and then the next, they opened up. They shared with their whole hearts in ways they never expected to, and told stories they’d never shared publicly with anyone. Stories of struggle and insecurity. Stories of triumph and jubilation. Stories of just trying to uplift people’s spirits and sustaining their faith — changing lives for the better, one person at a time in one community at a time.
Story-telling – and active listening – were important this week for another reason. If you read Jewish news sites, you might have seen that there is a whole new wave of #MeToo stories breaking out throughout the institutions of American Reform Judaism – involving friends and colleagues and teachers and institutional leaders. This week, we welcomed all the voices and the stories that needed to be told, however difficult they might be to hear, in a safe and open space. In seminars, in text-study sessions, in small group conversations, and even in the chat box.
It was an important reminder to each of us that we need to speak softly and sensitively. That we must listen and ask questions rather than make assumptions or accusations, without having all the facts at hand.
I wonder what would have happened if Korach and Datham and Abiram and their followers had approached Moses and Aaron with that attitude, rather than trying to shame them or throw ignorant, self-serving accusations at them in public. Maybe their wives and daughters would have encouraged collaboration rather than confrontation. Maybe God wouldn’t have gotten so angry as to open the earth and spread a plague. Maybe at least some of those 14-thousand people would have lived.
In next week’s Torah portion, Miriam dies – and there is no formal mourning period in the camp for her, as there will be for Aaron and Moses.
Yet the Israelites will reel in the profound loss they feel — so much so that, according to the text, the community is said to be left without water. Without basic life-sustaining nourishment. It is a reminder of how much the talent, the commitment, and the nurturing character of women contribute to Jewish community – often without recognition.
You know, for years after ordination, I kind of dismissed the Women’s Rabbinic Network as something I didn’t need. After all, I’d always worked in male-dominated careers – and I managed to acquit myself pretty well.
But the first time I went to a women’s rabbinic convention, I realized that I get something there that I get nowhere else. Everything we do together is meant to lift each other up and embrace each other, or receive an embrace and be lifted up, as we need it. We share and we listen. We socialize and do things just for fun.
After any other professional conference, I might leave with some new texts to teach or new technology to bring back. This week, I bring back joy and pride and hope and love.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Numbers 16:3.
 Numbers 16:5
 Num. 16:32-35.
 Num. 18:2.