My Bar Mitzvah: Korach and Hillel

I was working on a different post but realized that I became a bar mitzvah on June 14, 1975 (or “I had my bar mitzvah” as we in the US tend to say, noting more the ceremony and celebration than the rite of passage). I find it gratifying and sobering to reflect back on that experience and find relevance for me now. This year, my Torah portion, Korach, is in fact, read today, June 16, so here is an updated Bar Mitzvah reflection+43 years. My next Missive will probably come out a little sooner than later and will cover more territory as is my custom. -Jim

jim_bike_richmondImportant parts of becoming a b’nai mitzvah (the general term for a bar or bat mitzvah, a “child of good deeds”) is publicly reading from the Torah (the five books of Moses) and giving a drash (teaching), usually interpreting the Torah portion (or “parsha”) . I read from the parsha Korach (Numbers 16:1 to 18:32). I wasn’t very moved by it at the time, and in preparation for my talk my rabbi (the wonderful Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, may his memory be for a blessing) didn’t make me talk about it. Instead we shifted to the classic and ever relevant quote of Hillel’s from Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Parents 1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” This sentiment has been the inspiration for many a b’nai mitzvah. It has remained a major influence in my life too…and an ongoing challenge. I’m always trying to walk that fine line between looking out for myself or for us all. The fulcrum shifts so the balance point rarely means equal weights of self and other, just as the divine beauty point between mercy and justice is solidly on the side of mercy even if it seems to be the opposite here in this world, Malkuth.

Now though, I see ample lessons for me in Korach so that I marvel at how that parsha fell to me. [Interjecting here another early influence that has made me who I am in a big way: Holly Near’s song from 1973/1974: It Could Have Been Me. -Jim] A recent mention of Korach on an internal Jewish Voice for Peace listserve prompted me to consider my bar mitzvah lessons again. Benjamin Ben Baruch wrote about a weekend workshop he attended (quoted with permission):

It was a program of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs and sponsored by both local synagogues.  It was held over the Shabbat on which the story of Korah is read and both the local Reconstructionist rabbi and the Conservative rabbi from JCPA gave the same interpretation of this story:

Korah approached Moses representing the “voice of the people”.  There were grievances about his leadership. Korah was swallowed up by the earth – that is, he was “executed” by divine punishment.  What did Korah do that merited such punishment? The rabbis concocted a reason to explain this summary execution of a someone who challenged Moses: he must have said something that was beyond what was acceptable.

In other words, to start off the workshop to bring diverse opinions about Israeli policies and the ways we relate to Israel, the two rabbis issued a warning: Some positions are just unacceptable and will not be tolerated! [Emphasis added. -Jim]

I just reread Korach after many years and also some interpretations about it collected by Lawrence Kushner and Kerry Olitzky in the beautiful book Sparks Beneath the Surface. I think I last looked at it in the mid-1990s when I challenged myself to seek inspiration in Judaism after finding more spiritual gravitas elsewhere. (Thank you, Reclaiming Community!) I quickly found Jewish Renewal, and I also learned that I received a pretty good Jewish education growing up as pertains to Jewish ethics and teachings. In my childhood, reform movement synagogue, I never put together that we were being taught passages of Talmud extracted and translated. Learning the lesson was more important than knowing the source.

The text clearly states that God made the ground open up to swallow alive Korach’s tribe and a couple others that were part of the insurgency even though they didn’t show up for the big showdown. It is a classic sounding “angry God” text, and very unforgiving. My interpretation, which I’m happy to see is shared by some rabbis of old, is that the challengers had lost their faith, and they simply had no ground to stand on. That manifested literally in the earth falling away from them and swallowing them up, putting the onus for their fate back in their own hands instead of blaming an external deity. To learn from a story, I’ll play with an anthropomorphized deity or godhead or aspect a goddess or other being even if I hold a mystical, somewhat incorporeal view of the divine.

This cartoon from the northern California Jewish Bulletin from 1994 at the time of the Hebron massacre by Baruch Goldstein somes sadly to mind in light of the murders in the Jerusalem synagogue last week.

Political cartoon from northern California’s Jewish Bulletin in 1994 at the time of the Baruch Goldstein massacre in which he entered the Al Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron with a machine gun and killed almost thirty worshippers until his gun jammed. Some Israelis celebrate him still.

The God of the Bible sort of taunted the Israelites, often testing their faith as they wandered in the desert and as they invaded Canaan. [A contemporary aside: In the Torah, the ancient Hebrews were clearly not elected or chosen by the people of Canaan to “come to power” or to “take over.” They invaded, and we would do well to consider the second part of the Book of Exodus as much as we do the first half. I contrast this with Hamas in Gaza which won free and fair elections to gain control of Gaza. Hamas didn’t split their votes like the Fatah candidates did, and they were elected and have been far more diplomatic and honest than has Israel which is a tragically low bar to set. The Israelites lost their faith time and again, and God made examples of some to impress and scare the rest. God heard Israel cry about lack of water or food (legitimate fears) or that they were tired (also fair, perhaps). Sometimes “enemies” would be delivered into their hands as a sign to restore their faith. Other times God would say, “You should have believed in me,” and then kill a bunch of It’s “chosen people.” I do prefer forgiveness and mercy teachings, and it is important to note that, despite this particular story, if one counts references, God’s love is mentioned far more in scripture than is God’s retribution which is a good lesson for us to mirror in life.

This magazine is for youth. The cover is so offensive and hopeless in its depiction of a "P.L.O. Statesman" it makes me less hopeful.

I find this 1976 magazine cover for young people, published by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, despicable. It reflects the ongoing, racist, many-leveled, hypocritical Catch-22 that Palestinians have faced from the Zionist camp for decades: They say they need Palestinian peace partners, but then they say don’t trust Palestinian peace partners. Another part of the hypocrisy is that Israel has a sordid record of assassinating Palestinian leaders, sometimes on the verge of negotiations, who were in the best positions to be peacemakers. And there has long been so much Palestinian organizing that exemplifies nonviolent, even pacifist principles, that its invisibility is a terrible disservice to truth.

Certainly, I don’t think Korach is correctly applied to say that I and the rising chorus of dissent are outside the bounds of legitimate Jewish debate about Israel or Zionism. That would make the government of Israel analogous to Moses and Aaron, an undeserved position to say the least. Maybe Jeff Sessions will add Korach to his playbook as he has used Romans 13 (from the Christian canon) to tell Americans that God wants us all to obey the state, actually trying to put the divine imprimatur on the current administration. (SO SAD!) Israel and Zionist Jewish leaders are a very far cry from Moses and Aaron! Trump has a very dangerous God-complex. The scary thing is how many people are buying into it. It is unbelievable, but here it is.

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed this sentiment in sermons during the last year of his life. Sometimes I run it as an e-mail signature, so it may be familiar to you:

“Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as His divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgement, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant, and if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know My Name. Be still, and know that I’m God.'”

I criticize Israel and stand with Palestine not because I in some way renounce Judaism, but because I embrace it even as I do renounce pro-Israel hypocrisy (including that of so-called “liberal Zionists” or people who are PEP, progressive on everything but Palestine). Israel defenders all too often seem to cry, “Just Us!” instead of “Justice!” I think the Talmud’s House of Shammai (the harsher, more literalist contemporary of the typically merciful Hillel) would stand with Palestine-supporting Jews like me. Both Hillel and Shammai are probably rolling over in their graves at what is being done in Judaism’s name.


The story of Korach clearly raises the question of when to challenge leadership and when to follow it. Can questioning leadership be helpful instead of a threat? I hope so. I know that at times I have been a thorn in the side of some leaders or with people with whom I have shared leadership. I have challenged authority, sometimes unwisely, or missed learning opportunities due to my own arrogance. I think I have avoided cynicism and start from a place of giving a benefit of the doubt when trying to resolve conflicts or figure out what and whose plan to follow. I’m not a knee jerk anarchist, and I want to be a supportive follower as well as a humble leader. Sometimes things need to be shaken up, but I’m not a Ward Churchill, “Just Fuck things up” kinda guy, and I sure hope the ground and my faith continue to hold me up.

At the Middle East Children’s Alliance 30th anniversary celebration recently, Alice Walker or Angela Davis made a point about hope, that it is created by outrage and action. I am continually awe inspired by examples of this that I learn about from my dear Afghan friends from my trip there in 2011. Did you know that Pashtun men are walking for peace from Helmand across the country for peace?

Our World Needs You to end warLet us keep the faith, but in teachings and lessons more than leaders and governments. We know in our souls that it is better to love than hate and better to judge and forgive than to judge and hold a grudge. I pray that we don’t look away from people and a planet in need, and that by our outrage and actions, love and forgiveness prevail over fear and violence. As the Teachings of the Parents (Pirke Avot) states early on, we are “not obligated to complete the task, but nor are we free to desist.”

Addendum about Afghan Peace Walk

From my friend Kathy Kelly’s recent article (June 11) about this profound peace effort:

cropped-afghan-street-doveThis past Friday in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, Hazara girls joined young Pashto boys to sing Afghanistan’s national anthem as a welcome to Pashto men walking 400 miles from Helmand to Kabul. The walkers are calling on warring parties in Afghanistan to end the war. Most of the men making the journey are wearing sandals. At rest stops, they must tend to their torn and blistered feet. But their mission grows stronger as they walk. In Ghazni, hundreds of residents, along with religious leaders, showed remarkable readiness to embrace the courage and vision of the Helmand-to-Kabul peace walk participants. It seems likely that ordinary Afghans, no matter their tribal lineages, share a profound desire to end forty years of war. The 17-year U.S. war in Afghanistan exceeds the lifetimes of the youngsters in Ghazni who greeted the peace walkers.

There is so much more to talk about. I can’t believe so many people in our country claim the mantle of “family values” even as they seem to accept separating families at the border. More on that next time and other tragedies and inspirations. Plus, lots of personal life changes to share. Soon…



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3 Responses to My Bar Mitzvah: Korach and Hillel

  1. mrice12 says:

    I am so PROUD to have collaborated with you during our splendid years at NDE , and now to be able to share this reflection on how your faith is constantly evolving.. Can this be shared with Amy Schultz and Chelsea and their partners also in their faith journeyings along with us? I can feel dear Peter Ediger’s delight in your efforts to keep us on this way. I can only imagine you mother’s joy in these so honest words which critique the status quo infidelities of our faith traditions. Well done, Jim! Blessings and
    Please keep on enriching us with your discoveries in faith.


  2. Jim says:

    Thank you so much Megan. I think Chelsea receives them. My mother also appreciated it very much and is proud of me so thank you.


  3. Benjamin M Ben-Baruch says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful discussion of a very difficult passage in Torah. Personally, I still find it more meaningful to simply reject this passage because of its clear meaning (pshat) that dissent and challenging authority will not be tolerated. I appreciate the ethical insights that are generated by trying to find a deeper meaning in this section of the Torah. And I like the insights you have provided. But I find that knowing when to reject parts of the Torah as simply not morally or ethically acceptable to be a better approach because it includes the humility to admit that our traditions and our past history should not always be exalted. Sometimes it is better to clarify why we reject parts of the Torah than to jump through hoops to find some kind of acceptable interpretation or “deeper meaning”.


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