Who was Korach? He was a leading member of Kehatites, the most prestigious of the three Levite families. And why did he rebel? Korach took issue with the spiritual class system that Moses implemented and that Moses and Aaron oversaw – at the lowest run of the system were the Israelites, the workers who were tasked with mundane jobs. Above the Israelites were the Levites, who were delegated to serve as priests and spiritual leaders. Within the Levites, Aaron, brother of Moses, and Aaron’s descendants were to be the Kohanim, those who served G-d in the sanctuary. And supreme leader over all, was the Kohen Gadol. Korach objected to this caste system, arguing that if all the Israelites are holy in G-d’s eyes, why are some considered holier? His position was that those who are destined to labour physically for their entire lives are no less holy than those Jews who have been chosen to pursue a life of spiritual duties. This formed the basis of Korach’s philosophical disagreement with Moses and Aaron and explains why he attempted to rebel against the status quo.
Sounds good, except that while he railed against class inequality, what Korach really coveted, ironically, was the prestigious title of Prince of his Kehati family, which was denied him and instead was bestowed upon his cousin. Korach took exception to this as he was the older of the two and he felt he should have been endowed with this honor. So, the man that protested against classism, also coveted a privileged position within his class. Deep down, it was all about him, and not about equality.
Nehama Leibowitz, the esteemed Israeli Bible Scholar emphasizes this point in her own interpretation of the portion, by noting the grammatical construction of verse 3 Chapter 16 of this week’s parasha. As Korach admonishes Moses he says…"You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, every one of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of Adonai? " Here Korach is challenging Moses over his authoritative non egalitarian role as leader of the Jews.
Leibowitz notes that Korach uttered the words “community ARE holy”, with “are” being the plural form. The grammatically proper way would be “community IS holy” because community is singular. She suggests that in using the plural verb, Korach considers the Israelites to be a community of individuals, not a single collective unit where the use of the singular form “is” would be appropriate. So, Korach's real purpose in rebellion is not to advocate for equality of the collective community, but his purpose is rooted in his own individualism, his own ambition.
So Korach is a the bad guy. But is he really all-consuming bad? Even if his agenda was all about himself, the launching pad for his rebellion was rooted in what he saw as an inequality and unfairness of a hierarchical society led by Moses. And if we think about that a little more, isn’t that a theme that has defined and continues to define so much of who we are as Jews? We see that throughout Jewish history. We see it in the family of the Macabees that rebelled against the despotic Syrian king Antiochus who tried to quash the Jewish people in 165 CE. The revolt of Shimon Bar Kochva against the Romans. We see it in the Ghetto Warsaw Uprising. We see it in the modern day Feminist Movement who’s early leaders like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug were both Jewish.
Common themes are seen in these rebellions – the themes of empowerment, of justice, and the need to support each other – inclusion, if you will. Indeed, it’s that theme of inclusion which I hope can serve as a spark for our own form of rebellion here within Toronto’s Jewish community. Yes, rebellion. Right here. Right now.
Let’s be honest. Toronto is not a terribly friendly city. It’s not just my experience and feelings either. According to a Toronto Star 2013 article, we are “Toronto the good not Toronto the friendly”. As Abigail Pugh wrote in her story, "In a community that doesn’t practice eye contact and “good morning,” social forms taken for granted elsewhere read, quite logically, as alarming. Greeting a stranger in an elevator, waiting room or — as happened recently to me, on a porch crowded with parents of my daughter’s camp friends — elicits a startled, high-pitched “Hi!” as though caught with lowered pants. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that “One of the inherent qualities of the gaze is that it expects to be returned by the person to whom it is given.” The Toronto problem is that expecting no return, most are unwilling to gaze.
Sadly, this sense of anonymity is found in the Jewish community too. For all the wealth of services, resources, charities and institutions this community is blessed with, Toronto’s Jewish community is an insular one. For some, that’s great – if you’re “in” the “in crowd” you feel belonged, but if you’re not part of the established crowd, our Jewish community can be a lonely, cold place.
I’ve spoken with many people over the years on this topic – many of whom have moved here from other cities – who repeat the same story. It’s very hard to break into this community. Everybody already knows everybody. If you’re already established, nobody wants to meet new people. I heard this from my sister in law who teaches at a day school and told me of new families who have felt the established have not reached out to them. I heard this personally from a congregational Rabbi I met a few years back. He and his wife had recently moved to Toronto. He told me it took an entire year before people started acknowledging him and his wife. And it’s my own personal experience to.
So this is how and where we start our own revolution. By resolving to rebel against this insularity, complacency, alienation. And it can start right here, right now, at City Shul. Where better than here? A synagogue that was founded on the desire for change; on the principles of inclusion, on a mission to be different, on a desire to make everyone feel they belong. I encourage the congregation to re-dedicate itself to the concept of “audacious hospitality.” What is audaciouss hospitality? It’s way of amping up the mitzvah of Hachansat Orchim “The Welcoming of Guests,” which is central to the existence of City Shul.
How can you practice Audacious Hospitality here? By just wishing a face that’s new to you a Good Shabbos., asking then if it’s their first time here. That’s audacious hospitality. Or by introducing yourself to someone you see regularly here, but just don’t talk to for whatever reason. That’s audacious hospitality. Recall the last time you were in a gathering where you didn’t know a soul – and how awkward you may have felt. We’ve all been there. And then someone approached you with a smile and a hello. Remember how relieved you felt?
I know that for some people, going up to a stranger is not comfortable. It takes courage to go up to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself and say hi. Which is why there are so many other ways at City Shul to show your audaciousness. Can you smile? C’mon everybody show me your smiles…they’re beautiful! You’re now all qualified to become a greeter because that’s all you need to be one. Because sometimes all it takes is a smile to make a new person feel welcomed.
Go one step further. Come to a Friday night pot luck dinner. Participate in our yearly Share-a-Shabbat program in November, where members can invite new faces to their home to sanctify the Seventh day with a Shabbat meal.
So go one step further. Today—volunteer with head usher Marsha or Anne to be a greeter at another service if you’ve never done it before. Go one step further. Today, this afternoon at kiddush— sit with someone you’ve never spoken to before.
I can tell you right now, as someone who used to be an Orthodox Jew, the one thing I miss most is knowing that if I wasn’t hosting people for a Shabbat meal myself, there was always a Shabbat meal invitation extended to me. It was central to the Shabbat experience as much as shul attendance. That’s audacious hospitality.
The rebel spirit lives within each of us. It’s literally in our Jewish DNA. After all, we are all descendants of that very Korach, whether we like his approach or not— remember that Korach saw the world as a group of individuals, not as a community, and just by being in a shul together, in our individualistic “Korachian” society, we are rebelling against that.
And more positively, we are also all descendants of our patriarch Abraham, the ultimate Jewish revolutionary, who in rebelling against the prevailing practices of idolatry in his time, founded the very faith that brings us all together here this morning in a spirit of community and moving forward…in the spirit of audacious hospitality. What better time to start the “friendly Toronto” rebellion than today, when we go to the social room for Kiddush and make a l’chayim together.