l Samuel 11:14-12:22
There is an old rabbi’s joke about an itinerant preacher — a maggid — who went from town to town speaking, with only one sermon in his arsenal. That sermon discussed the rebellion of Korach and his minions against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. When the maggid spoke during the week of parshat Korach, of course, he had no problem. But what did he do the rest of the year? He would get up to speak, reach into his pocket for his speech, pretend that he had dropped it, and then, after a lengthy search, announce, “My sermon is gone! It must have been swallowed up by the earth, just like Korach! Speaking of Korach….” He would then proceed to give his Korach sermon.
I’ve written many speeches and sermons, yet this year my Korach speech is especially poignant. I’ve studied and quoted from hundreds of rabbis, past and present. But one rabbi and teacher has been my greatest influence, from whom I’ve learned more Torah than any other, and whose spiritual influence is present in practically all of my writings and indeed my life.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s 22nd yahrzeit is this Shabbat, the third day of Tammuz. It will be observed and reflected on by hundreds of thousands. For me, who grew up in his presence, listened to hundreds of his talks and observed him in prayer for many years, he was the greatest demonstration of someone who combined spiritual leadership, holiness and humility and above all a genuine love and concern for every Jew throughout the globe.
One of the hallmarks of the Rebbe’s way of analyzing stories in the Torah was that they are not simply tales of villains and heroes. Even the “bad guys” in the Torah reflect a deeper spiritual phenomenon than is evident at the surface. It emerged from the Rebbe’s deep conviction that every story and anecdote in the Torah is purposeful and instructive for daily living. As the Torah is not a history book, rather a living guide for everyday life, even the protagonists of the stories of mishaps and tragedies, by virtue of their neshamah (soul) that is a part of God, must have a spiritually redeeming quality and contain valuable life lessons for each of us.
One of the ways the Rebbe approached the story of Korach was emblematic of his appreciation for the spiritual potential of every individual. On the one hand we have the stark story of an ego-driven revolt by Korach against Moses and Aaron with devastating results for him and his supporters.
The Rebbe saw it as something much deeper, a profound theological debate that resonates today as much as then. According to the mystics, Korach was a spiritual giant whose only fault was that he was ahead of his time. While it was indisputable that Moses’ leadership was necessary in the desert where he taught the Torah to the people, they were about to leave that world behind and enter Israel, to build a country and transform themselves from a nation of scholars and academics to drain swamps, form a defense force and become halutzim (pioneers).
That challenge is as relevant today as it was then. Is the authority of the Torah and rabbinic leadership confined to the shtetls of history or can it be the voice of ethics and morality in the modern metropolis of Israel 2.0?
Korach’s instincts were correct, the Rebbe says. The story highlights the great idealism of Korach. He wanted individuals to see the greatness they possessed, that spirituality and Torah is not just for some or the privileged, as he stated, “We are all equally holy and God is within us all.”
It also shows the unique sensitivity and towering leadership of Moses. He never gave up on the rebellious group until the very end, and rather than be personally affronted, he understood that it was not simply a social revolution, rather it was a messianic yearning.
The Rebbe, post-Holocaust, was determined to rebuild Jewish life not just in some places but to bring it to every Jew across the globe. He taught these two lessons: Never ever give up on a fellow Jew; and the transformative effect just one mitzvah can have, ushering the Moshiach, thus finally bringing Korach’s utopian vision to reality.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.