Parashat Korah

By Boaz Marmon

“Can you hear them? They talk about
us, telling lies – well, that’s no surprise.”

This is the first verse, not of
Parashat Korah
, but of the Go-Go’s’ 1982 hit “Our lips are
sealed” (you may be familiar with a recent cover by Hilary and Haylie
Duff). I doubt that Belinda and the girls had Moshe Rabbeinu
– Moses Our Teacher – and Aharon Ha-Kohen – Aaron the Priest
– in mind when they wrote the song, but not only do I think Moshe
would sympathize with the sentiments of the song, he also seems to have
internalized the strategy advocated by the Go-Go’s in response: “There’s
a weapon / which we must use / in our defense: / silent lips!”

Our Sages anachronistically applied
the title, “Rabbenu – Our Rabbi” to Moses. Those of us
serving in leadership roles in the Jewish community can sympathize on
a smaller scale with the strains Moshe felt as “rabbi” of the entire
nascent Israelite nation. We Jews have always been, we are now, and
we surely will always be, a fractious bunch. As leaders, we knowingly
place ourselves as lighting rods for dissention atop the communal rooftops,
absorbing the lightning strikes when storms come along. Sometimes this
means we suffer personal burns and scorches to protect the communal

It was no different for Moshe after
Sinai. Our ancestors in the desert were dislocated, disoriented, and
disconcerted; and their discomfort was displaced onto their leader.
More than once, they accused Moshe of leading them to certain death
in the desert, crying that they preferred to “Walk like an Egyptian”
– no wonder they couldn’t get along with him; they were Bangles
fans! Moshe probably often felt he needed a “Vacation! All I ever
wanted! Vacation, had to get away!” (Go-Go’s again – I just can’t

One of the toughest lessons – which
we can learn from Moshe Rabbeinu or Belinda Carlisle and the
Go-Go’s, according to our own predilections – is to be silent in
the face of criticism. We may roll in bed all night formulating responses,
and it’s exceedingly frustrating and difficult to keep them to ourselves,
especially when we feel the criticism is untrue, unfair, hypocritical,
irrelevant, or otherwise flawed.

The criticism comes in three broad
categories: personal, professional, and personal masquerading as professional.
We can find instances of all three categories in this summer’s Torah
readings. Miriam and Aaron’s lashon hara – evil gossip –
about Moses’ wife (end of Parashat BeHa’alotcha) falls into
the first category, and Moshe himself did not dignify it with any response,
he left it to Someone Else (and who better?) to defend his honor. The
plea of the daughters of Tzlophchad (Parashat Pinhas)
was purely professional and Moshe dealt with it as such, although he
ultimately turned to Higher Authority to address the issue raised. Our
own parashah provides a clear example of personal attack cloaked
in professional garb. Korah and his colleagues’ real complaint
is “why you and not me?” but they dress it up as a professional
challenge. In commenting on Numbers 16:1, Rashi describes the tactics
of Korah: he brought questions to Moshe knowing that the “right”
answer would look silly. Moshe is certainly not silent in our parashah,
but he scrupulously avoids responding to the personal or retaliating
in kind. He speaks only to the ‘ikar (the crux): whom has God
chosen for this role?

Thus, our teacher Moses, and the Go-Go’s
teach us how to respond to the attacks we will inevitably periodically
draw in our careers as Jewish communal professionals. Whenever possible,

“Doesn’t matter what they say /
In the jealous games people play, hey, hey, hey;
Our lips are sealed.
Pay no mind to what they say, / Doesn’t
matter anyway, hey, hey, hey;
Our lips are sealed.”

As an addendum, I offer the following
ten points (four observations and six strategies) for dealing with “The
Angry Congregant” from an article of the same name by my father, Rabbi
Elliott Marmon, which can be found in its entirety on page 76 of Vol.
36(3), the Spring 1983 issue of Conservative Judaism, the journal
of the Rabbinical Assembly:


Anger is a normal, natural
part of life.
I can’t please everybody.
Popularity is not the purpose
of being a congregational rabbi.
A congregant is not automatically
right or justified because he pays dues.


I never defend the indefensible
(i.e. admit errors).
I try to make my reasoning
or motivation understandable.
If a congregant approaches
me to complain (rather than grouse to others), I thank him for his forthrightness.
I will argue issues, but
not personalities.
I don’t take myself or
my congregation too seriously (meaning, try to keep the scope of an
issue in perspective, and use humor to defuse conflict if possible).
Time heals many breaches.


Boaz Marmon is a rabbinical student
at AJR.