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Marking the Freedom to Speak Our Minds

June 30, 2005
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RABBI SHAWN ISRAEL ZEVIT

The heat of summer is upon us, and two independence days (Canada, July 1; United States, July 4) surround Shabbat. It's certainly a week for celebration - of appreciating and articulating the gifts our democratic system has brought.

It's also a time to take stock of who may not be benefiting from liberty.

Earlier this month, I joined 40 religious leaders and 1,000 others at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to bring attention to a national effort to reduce hunger in the United States by 50 percent by the year 2010.

Bipartisan resolutions moving through the House and Senate added to the weight of our gathering. The commitment to address this issue united lead-ers from vastly divergent traditions and perspectives in a cause that was dubbed "One Table, Many Voices" (www.bread.org or www.mazon.org for a Web cast of the event).

Tip of the Iceberg

Did our efforts have long-term impact? It is too early to tell. However, my experience in Washington was of the power of collaborative action in the world for a holy purpose.

While meeting with various leaders on all sides of the political and religious spectrum, I was reminded of the sages' commentary on this portion as they try to distinguish between the leadership model of Korach and Moses. They offer that Korach's critique of Moses' leadership style was for his own gain, and not for principles that went beyond his own ascension of leadership.

According to Simcha Bunem of Przysucha, Korach was from one the elite families among the tribes of Israel - a straight "A" student with natural leadership potential and a destiny to be a leader among Israel. How could such promise come to such a tragic end? Are we not encouraged in our Jewish tradition to argue with God, and strive with beings both human and divine?

The Sefat Emet notes that according to the Aramaic translation of vayikakh korach ("Now Korach took … ") means va'etpalag korach ("Now Korach divided himself … "). He suggests that the leadership potential Korach displayed and the critical feedback he gave Moses created a split in his own soul and contributed to deep divisions in Israel that were unsustainable.

Korach's stance, while it may have had some validity, caved in upon itself. Even his name, sharing the same root as kerach, or "ice," and karchon, or "iceberg," denotes that his approach contributed to a frozen atmosphere and the potential to have the people of Israel crash into the tip of an argument that would sink the whole community.

While the portion challenges undermining leadership for self-gain, I am ever vigilant to any interpretation of Torah used to silence challenges to authority or the status quo. It would prevent the sacred work of tikkun olam, and would allow those in power positions to go unquestioned in their motivation, if not the content of their actions.

The tragic end to Korach and his follower's lives - and the public display of God's allegiance to the leadership of Moses and Aaron - should not make us self-satisfied, with black and white portrayals of right and wrong. We, too, can easily become Korach in silencing any opinions divergent with our own, or negatively characterizing entire groups of people and their values and views.

As we celebrate the great freedoms and opportunities we are blessed with in this country, I pray we keep mindful and committed to a course of independence that brings us toward a greater land of promise fulfilled, and do not get swallowed up by the ground of misused liberty.

Let us rejoice this weekend - informed by the humility of Moses and the committed sacred service of Aaron this portion offers.

Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is director of outreach and director of external affiliations for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

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