Korach 5780 – Resilience

This week’s parsha, Korach, is not only the last parsha for which I’m here as your rabbi, it was also the first.

Last year I said:

Change is hard.
Change is necessary. 
Change is inevitable.

When I said those words, I had no idea – none of us did – what kind of changes, and the magnitude of the changes, that we as community, a country, a world, would face together.

Last year I talked about how Korach wanted to be a “change agent.” In this week’s parsha Korach gathers a band of followers, and he leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, saying:

רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְי וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְי׃

You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?

He challenged the leadership of Moses because he wanted change – he wanted to be the boss. His effort failed. They have a “shoot-out” with incense pans, and the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his band of rebels.

At the end of the Torah, however, when Moses put Joshua in charge, that was a change that was effective, that worked well, as Joshua became the leader that brought our ancestors into the Promised Land.

Last year I said that the lesson we can learn from those two examples is that change should happen in the right time, at the right pace, and in the right way.

That’s fine when you’re approaching change that has been anticipated, such as when a rabbi retires, or when Moses, at the age of 120, was informed by God that his time was almost up, and he needed to appoint a new leader.

But what about when change comes from out of nowhere? Radical change, that upends your very way of life? With next to no notice?

Every time I walk into the synagogue building, I pass the weekly Shabbat announcement on the board outside the main entrance with information for the Shabbat of March 13-14. I’m always reminded of how long it’s been since life was at all “normal.” Over three months now.

We’ve been faced with change we did not want, change we did not seek, change that totally disrupted our lives.

And what we did was what Jews have always done: we adapted to our new reality, and quickly. 

We were resilient.

Throughout history we’ve often had to be resilient.

When our ancestor Jacob swiped his brother Esau’s blessing, it didn’t go so well – Jacob was forced to flee for his life. But he adapted. He fled with not much more than the clothes on his back to family back in the “old country.” He fell in love and agreed to work for his beloved, Rachel, for seven years. But what happened on his wedding night? Jacob the deceiver was himself deceived, and he found it was actually Leah he’d married, not Rachel. What did he do? He was resilient. He accepted the situation, agreed to work another seven years for Rachel. Jacob encountered setback after setback in his life, he had change thrust upon him, but he adapted.

The greatest challenge to our people’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances happened 1,950 years ago, when the Romans destroyed our Holy Temple. Up until that time, Judaism had been a very Temple-centric religion. Sacrifices could only be offered at the Temple, and sacrifices were our vehicle for connecting with God. If you screwed up, and wanted God to forgive you, you brought a sacrifice. If you had a great year, and wanted to say “Thanks, God!” you brought a sacrifice. Special sacrifices were brought to mark the Sabbath and special sacrifices were brought to mark holidays. Our central daily act of worship was the twice-daily Tamid sacrifice that was offered in the Temple.

In the year 70, the Romans crushed a Jewish revolt, and destroyed the Temple. No Temple, no sacrifices. The Talmud brings a story that not long after the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai was out walking with Rabbi Yehoshua. They saw the destroyed Temple, and Rabbi Yehoshua cried out, “Oy! Our Temple is destroyed, how are we going to make atonement now that the place of atonement is destroyed.” Rabbi Yohanan answered him and said, “Calm down, we have an even better way to make atonement. Acts of loving kindness, as it is stated in scripture: ki chesed chafatzti, v’lo zevach. “I desire hesed, lovingkindness, not sacrifice.” 

Rabbi Yohanan was perhaps the greatest change agent our people have ever known. The Jewish rebels in Jerusalem were determined to fight to the death in their struggle against the Romans. They were ruthless. They would kill Jews who disagreed with them, or who would try to escape the siege of Jerusalem. Listening to some advice from his nephew, a rebel leader, Rabbi Yohanan pretended to be dead and his disciples were allowed to carry the “body” out of the city for burial. Once outside he went to the Roman leader, Vespasian, and when it was clear that Vespasian was intent on destroying Jerusalem along with the rebels, he asked to be given the sages at Yavneh, to spare Yavneh, and in addition to spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel. Vespasian agreed, and Rabbi Yohanan and the sages of Yavneh showed themselves amazingly resilient. They adapted to this crisis, the likes of what hadn’t been seen in over 500 years, by completely reinventing Judaism. They made the most radical change in halacha, Jewish law, in the history of the Jewish people: they substituted prayer for sacrifice. They developed the seder as an alternative way to mark the holiday of Passover. In essence, they created a new religion on the ruins of the old.

In 1492, when King Ferdinand told the Jews in Spain that they had to choose between converting to Christianity, leaving, or dying, most left. They fled, many to Turkey and Israel, and the ones who fled to Israel not only survived, but they flourished and developed a deep mystical tradition, Lurianic Kabbalah.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s 700,000 Jews were forced to flee Arab lands. Wealthy families fled with what they could carry with them; poor families fled with the clothes on their backs. They were welcomed in Israel, they adapted to a new life, and they have prospered. It took time, and it wasn’t easy – there was a lot of prejudice amongst the Ashkenazi elite against these newcomers from Arab lands – but a couple of generations later they are fully integrated into Israeli society.

We as a society are being buffeted by change. In the wake of the coronavirus, our normal daily routine has gone virtual. I’m leading services from my living room. The murder of George Floyd has propelled demands for change in how our police function. And we have other forces pushing change on us, especially the warming climate and increasing income inequality.

But what if instead of viewing these challenges as unmitigated disasters, we saw them as catalysts for change, change of a wonderful and welcome kind.

The destruction of the Temple was the greatest blessing in disguise the Jewish people ever received. Was it God’s plan all along? I don’t know, but I do know that if the Temple had NOT been destroyed, and Judaism remained an animal sacrifice-oriented cult, Judaism would have died out a long time ago, just as the Greek and Roman sacrificial cults died out. What seemed to be an existential crisis was actually the seed of our salvation.

This is something that every generation that finds itself in really hard times says, but maybe we ARE in the midst of the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” the difficult times that presage better times to come. 

Those of us who are relatively traditional in our practice of Judaism would never have had guests at our seder who connected via Zoom. And yet – having seen how wonderful it is to be able to bring together family and friends from far and wide, how having a screen sitting at the end of our seder table did not detract from the seder experience but instead enhanced it, many of us may continue to augment our in person guests with virtual guests even long after the coronavirus has passed. I have three daughters in Israel and two in America. It’s been years since we’ve been able to have all five girls in one place, and yet prodded by the coronavirus we now manage to get together regularly. It’s a blessing. Yes, we could have done that before, but somehow, we didn’t.

I believe after this virus passes, the changes will be with us for a long time, and there will be many unintended and unforeseen consequences.

Coronavirus has taught us that we can get a lot of business done working from home. Coronavirus has taught us that some meetings actually run more efficiently when conducted remotely, rather than less. Coronavirus has taught us that being physically isolated does not have to mean being socially isolated. 

Coronavirus has also taught us that in times of uncertainty many people have an inexplicable urge to hoard toilet paper.

Have you noticed how meetings on Zoom start on time? No one has an excuse that they were stuck in traffic. Post-coronavirus there will be more people who can work from places that are affordable, fewer people hopping on airplanes for routine business meetings, and less time spent in cars traveling to meetings that can be done virtually. All of these changes will be good for the environment and good for the mental health of everyone.

Similarly, it feels like the death of George Floyd is going to lead to lasting change, for the better, in relations between black America and white America. White people are hearing the pain of our black brethren, and they’re joining the black community in demanding change.

Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

I close with a prayer:

Ribono shel olam
Master of the Universe
Help us to be inspired by the examples of our ancestors
Grant us the strength and wisdom
To build a better world 
A more connected world
A more just world
May we see opportunity for tomorrow
In the crisis of today

Amen

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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