Korach and Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5773

by Rabbi Iris Richman

When the Earth opens up around us, let us seek wholeness and balance.

The Jewish calendar is structured on lunar activity.  Every time there is a new moon, a Hebrew month begins.  We read in Exdous that God told Moses: “Ha’hodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim rishon hu lachem l’hodshei ha’shanah.”

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”  These words – that the Jewish people must mark the months – is counted as the first mitzvah that the Israelites received on their way out of Egypt. Rosh Hodesh happens every month, and in modern times, often with little note.  But, traditionally, the determination of the first observation of the monthly new moon is the key action by which we live and act as Jews.  Before the establishment of settled, printed calendars, it was the diverse voices of Jewish witnesses that set our Jewish calendar, without which we could not have set dates for any of the Jewish holidays.  Witnesses traveled to Jerusalem from near and far to testify about having sighted the new moon.  The date of every single Jewish holiday, and thus our celebrations and sacred markings of time – can only be determined by reference to the dates of the new moon.

The Mishnah vividly describes to us the importance of these diverse voices.  Rosh Hodesh is the ultimate occasion of coming together in unity from all of our separate places – even violating Shabbat to testify about the first sighting of the new moon.  Even those who could not travel by foot: “they may bring him by donkey [even on Shabbat] and if necessary even [carry him on Shabbat] in a bed. …  Because for a night and a day they may desecrate the Shabbat and go forth to testify about the new moon.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 22a).  Everyone’s voices are what makes Rosh Hodesh – Rosh Hodesh.

And even today, we gather together as one Jewish people to celebrate Rosh Hodesh.  For almost the last 25 years, every month, a women’s group called Women of the Wall has been celebrating Rosh Hodesh at the women’s section of the Kotel in Jerusalem, seeking to connect with our ancient traditions and God’s presence.  Recently, there have been many arrests and much discord and violence, arising from Haredi objections to the women davening out loud, wearing tallit or tefillin, or reading from a sefer Torah.

As we consider the Torah reading for this week, Korach, coinciding on Shabbat and also Sunday with Rosh Hodesh Tammuz and the present situation of disharmony and violence at the Kotel, who among us doesn’t feel a little shiver down the spine?  Korach and his family and his possessions, all swallowed up by the Earth in a demonstration of God’s power in rejecting their challenge to Moshe’s leadership.  In our modern day, who is Korach and who is Moshe?

Korach confronted or stood up to the established leadership of the israelites, saying that all Israel is holy – and literally was struck down by God for doing this.  Did God reject a populist democracy?  And who would dare challenge religious leadership or want to follow in his footsteps after this?

Or was Korach’s sin an attempt to bring about anarchy and the disruption and elimination of ongoing religious ritual, by challenging not just Aaron the Kohen Gadol/High Priest but also all of the priests and the whole structure of religious, sacrificial worship to God?  What *was* Korach’s vision if he had survived to carry it forward?  In modern terms, was Korach a democrat or a fascist?

In considering this question a number of years ago, R. Elliot Dorff posed two possible responses.  Perhaps Korach was not wrong in seeking a democratic structure for the Israelites – but his timing was wrong.  Too many challenges and crises, in a society not ready or able to cast aside strong leadership. Or maybe, Korach’s challenge to the leadership was that of an anarchist, seeking to undo the rule of law, which would leave the people on their own in the wilderness, facing attacks from hostile surrounding nations.

In the end, the elliptical text does not allow us to determine with certainty what was truly dangerous about Korach’s position.  And that, I think, is exactly the point.

It would be SO tempting to say: “I have the answer – my position is like that of Moshe, not Korach – and I will seek to bring God to strike down everyone who doesn’t see it my way.  With a narrative this rife with this ambiguity, however, none of us can honestly say that.

Let us also remember the alternative to Korach – the challenge was not only to Moshe – but also to the High Priest, Aaron.  Presumably, had he survived and succeeded, Korach’s regime would have replaced Aaron.  With all of Aaron’s errors and sins – silence in the face of his own sons being struck down by God, collaborating with the Israelites to build the Golden Calf – how is Aaron seen in our tradition?  “Moshe used to say ‘Let the law pierce the mountain.’ But Aaron loved peace, pursued peace and made peace between people, as is said: ‘The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.'” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 6b, quoting Malachi 2:6.)

From the ambiguity of the narrative and the survival and triumph of Moshe AND Aaron over Korach, perhaps we can learn that shalom and shleimut – peace and wholeness are what we must always strive for, even and especially, in the most challenging times.  So for our challenging times, this year, in thinking about the challenges facing our Jewish people, especially on this Rosh Hodesh Tammuz at the Kotel, we offer this prayer for shleimut and izun, wholeness and balance.

A Prayer for Shleimut 

Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak v’ Elokei Ya`akov v’ Elokei Sara, Elokei Rivka, Elokei Leah v’ Elokei Rakhel

Pokeach Ivr[1]im, Oseh Shalom[2]:

In this time of challenge to our unity and holiness, when we unite to seek Your Shechinah[3] in Its eternal place, we seek shleimut[4] and izun[5], and we ask for the inspiration and support of Your ruach hakodesh[6].

Grant us the wisdom to understand and appreciate ourselves and each other in the fullness of our humanity and integrity, male and female, Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal.  All of us Jews. All of us created in Your holy image, a little less than angels, crowned with glory and honor.

Open our eyes and let us see the ruach Elokim[7] that endows us with holiness and unites us.  Let the uniqueness in which we were each created make us more holy, more and not less, but not divide us or reduce us to anything less than our fullest human potential, the pinnacle of the miracle of life.  As women and men, may we appreciate our differences but most of all, as Adam Rishon[8] in Gan Eden[9] was created both male and female, let us not magnify those differences above what we share with each other, but rather help us to attain the integration and purity of Gan Eden.

Enable us to lift our spirits and our hands to engage and joyously immerse ourselves in holy actions in Your service and bring us closer to You, in fulfillment of our heritage and traditions. May we also find the holiness in one another, so that we need not diminish any expressions of holiness, but rather so that we are fortified to support each other to bring about connection with the Shechinah, according to the way that each of us recognizes as sacred.  May all of our service be received by You with favor and bring us to further blessings.

Above all, may we always remember that Your gift to us is of love and not hate, peace and not violence, allowing us to strive for shleimut and integration, not discord.  May Your breath of life inside each of us bring us to realize our highest, holiest potential as one Jewish people and also as Jewish individuals, acting together and individually, to bring about the fulfillment of all blessings and the ultimate unity with the Source of all blessings forever.


© Rabbi Iris Richman




[1]  The One Who opens our eyes

[2]  The One Who makes peace

[3]  The Divine Presence

[4]  wholeness

[5]  balance

[6]  spirit of holiness

[7]  Divine spirit

[8]  the first human, created with both genders

[9]  the Garden of Eden

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