Braid the Parashah

Korach | 4th of July Weekend

This long holiday weekend makes us feel the push and pull of our interwoven American and Jewish identities a bit more keenly than we do on other Shabbatot.  To think about the theme of this secular holiday weekend, of freedom and independence, and what those American values mean to us as Jews and as citizens.  This year has been a particularly difficult one to be an American Jew.  Increased antisemitic rhetoric has forced many to question, some for the first time in their lives, the extent to which we are really welcome here, embraced here, and even safe here.  What does it mean for Jews in America to be free and is that freedom still worth fighting for? The fact that people are asking these questions in the first place is shocking and frightening but we can’t ignore the questions that weigh on our souls and hearts.. Instead we have an obligation to address them, to talk about them, and to consider them from the lens of our tradition… to let the wisdom of those who came before us help guide us as we face the challenges of our day. And this week’s Torah portion couldn’t be a better place to start. 

A surface level reading of the rebellion that Korach led against Moses and Aaron makes many of us wonder what it actually was that Korach did wrong.  Aren’t we supposed to stand up to our leaders if we think they have gone astray? Might Korach have been making a fair point and shouldn’t we have a right to peaceful protest without fear of being punished by death if we speak out? Isn’t peaceful protest an embodiment of freedom?  Initially it seems concerning that Korach was punished for protesting but when we dive deeper, the rabbis explain that he was not punished for protesting but rather because his protest had no other purpose than to increase his own power.  He was not embodying freedom but rather taking advantage of it, and using it as a tool for self-promotion. 

So much so that the rabbis use this story as an example to demonstrate what is meant by the teaching of Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chaim, these and these are the words of the living God… The text from Pirkei Avot says the following:

"Every argument that is [for the sake of] heaven's name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not [for the sake of] heaven's name -- it is not destined to endure. What [is an example of an argument for the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What [is an example of an argument not for the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Korach and all of his followers."

What the rabbis are explaining is that Korach took a just activity and undermined it by using it for unjust purposes. Instead of protesting for the purpose of helping the broader community he was protesting for the purpose of helping himself, of promoting himself to a position of power.  The same was true for Nadav and Avihu, who were punished for creating that strange fire for their own advancement, not for God. And the same lesson applies to our understanding of freedom.  

According to our rabbis, freedom must have a goal. It must have a purpose, a sacred pursuit that brings us closer to ourselves, and closer to each other, closer to God, and closer to Torah. 

S’fat Emet teaches:

“The purpose of all the commandments, both positive and negative, that were given to Israel, is so that every person of Israel be free. That is why the liberation from Egypt comes first [before the giving of the Torah]. Torah then teaches the soul how to maintain its freedom....This is the purpose of the entire Torah. That is why they read, "engraved [charut] on the tablets" (Ex 32:16) as though it said, "freedom [cheirut] on the tablets". The only free person is the one who is engaged in Torah, for Torah teaches a person the way of freedom.”

This framing places the concept of freedom in association with action… to be free is to engage with Torah.. To study and also to do..  It is not a “freedom from” but rather a “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is actually liberation, and that is what we experienced when we left Egypt.   “Freedom to”, by contrast, must be associated with a purpose… and that purpose, for Jews, is to live a life according to Torah.

But in America, the concept of freedom has all three of these ideas mixed into one. The freedom from oppression, the freedom to engage in meaningful and purposeful activities, and unfortunately the American concept of freedom, also includes the freedom of Korach, freedom for the sake of freedom, freedom that has no purpose beyond the self. 

And so as Jews, we are stuck in this reality of navigating how to live in a world that celebrates all these freedoms at the same time. As a Jewish community, we have experienced the benefits of all three and also now, again, experiencing the consequences of the third.  There are people, and even organized groups in American society that actively promote freedom for the sake of freedom, even when, and sometimes because, it causes pain to others… and unfortunately right now, Jews are increasingly becoming the target and the victim of other people’s pursuit of freedom for the sake of freedom.

But there are also other people, other groups in America, who have a sacred purpose… who, like the house of Hillel and the house of Shamai, pursue freedom with a goal in mind, a sacred purpose to make our country a better place for all people.  And this is the type of freedom I want to celebrate as an American this 4th of July weekend. 

So how do we do it? How do we lift up one type of freedom and rid ourselves of the other? This is where things get harder. Much harder.  We don’t live in biblical times and I don’t hope for a world where the earth opens up and swallows all the people who pursue freedom for their own sake, at the expense of others.  But I do want to live in a world where the earth opens up and swallows that ideology…  helping the people who get swept up in it find a sacred purpose. 

My belief is that it starts with us and that it is not only worth fighting for but also possible. There are so many hurdles, so many people who embrace a narcissistic and harmful understanding of freedom but hope is not yet lost and this weekend, for me, is a reminder of how critical it is to engage, to change the conversation, and not to give up on the potential for living in an American society that embraces purposeful freedom. 

This is something that is in reach for each of us in different ways. One of the beautiful things about the American Jewish community is that we are embedded in every aspect of American society. We don’t live in the isolated shtetls that many of our great-grandparents lived in. We are part of the fabric of American life, we live, work, dine, and play with our non-Jewish neighbors.  They are part of our daily lives, they are our close friends, they are members of our families, and some of our deepest and trusted confidants. We have an incredible opportunity to influence society, and the best way we can do that is through the relationships we already have, and this is something that is in reach for each and everyone of us. 

This year has taught us that as Jews, we need each other.  We need to be together, to rely on each other, to hug each other, to fight sacred fights with each other. But this 4th of July weekend also reminds us that as much as we need each other as Jews, we also need to be active members of our larger society.  To find a way to proudly embrace our Jewish identity as we go about our day to day lives. To reinvest in relationships, even when it stings, even when we’ve been hurt, threatened, and scared.  

This doesn’t mean we should be careless. We need to be smart, to take measures to protect our safety and security and thank God we have partners like the JCRC and our local police departments who help us to do precisely that.  But we also have an obligation to do what we can to build bridges, encourage education, and speak up for the sake of productive freedom, even when it feels uncomfortable to do so.

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to host a booth at the Hopkins Pride festival for my new organization, where I taught challah braiding, baked the challot on the spot for folks in a pizza oven, and engaged in open conversation with people about Judaism through an “ask the rabbi” format.  I know that Rabbi Weininger did something similar last weekend, leading services at the Minneapolis Pride festival and he, along with many of our other colleagues engaged in conversations with the general public with our kippot and tallitot proudly in view. Though I haven’t had an opportunity to share and process these experiences with my colleagues, I know that for me, the experience strongly validated the need to be out there in the public sphere, changing the conversation about what it means to be Jewish in America one conversation at a time. 

I had folks approach me with such a wide range of perspectives and who represented such a beautiful diversity of backgrounds. There were people who have never, at least knowingly, met somebody who is Jewish. There were people who were not raised Jewish but discovered later in life that they have Jewish ancestry. There were Jews, active members of our community. And non-Jews, Muslims, Christians, secular folks who support, or are curious about Judaism and what it means to live a Jewish life. In all cases, there was an openness and an eagerness to engage that represented an embodiment of purposeful freedom.  It was an expression of both Jewish and American values and a declaration that to be American is to be embraced as your full self, as Jewish, as queer, not just for the sake of being able to exist but with a goal, with a purpose that insists that we can make our broader society a better place if we can do so as our true selves.   

And a reminder that freedom to be ourselves cannot come at the expense of somebody else’s freedom. American Freedom isn’t about forcing Torah values onto non-Jewish Americans. The goal isn’t to proselytize, to hang the 10 commandments on the walls of public classrooms, but rather embrace our own Torah values in a way that respects diversity of backgrounds. Instead the goal is to find ways to be in dialogue with others in a way that represents and reflects our values.  To see others as sacred individuals who also have the freedom to make our country a better place through their own values and traditions. 

My hope for us this holiday weekend is that we can do this in a way that embraces hope and not despair for the future of American Jewry.  Hope is not lost and we still do have the freedom to impact the trajectory of our beautiful country. May we embrace it, celebrate it, and channel it for good.

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