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Parashat Korah 5782

June 30, 2022

When the Law is Unjust, We Break the Law
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

Last week, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, withdrawing the already paltry federal protections on abortion rights. Many states already had trigger laws in place and abortion access became unavailable to thousands of people overnight. Congress had 50 years to codify federal legislation to allow reproductive freedom throughout the country. A leak of the current Supreme Court decision broke out about six weeks ago, allowing time for the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, dominated by people who claim to support reproductive freedom and choice, to react before the decision was formally handed down. And yet, no preparations were made for this moment. Very few elected officials did anything to protect us, but so many were ready to wail and moan with us and ask for our votes and money as soon as the SCOTUS decision was official. Women and the LGBTQIA community have been completely failed by our governments.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korah, a man stands up to a head of state. Korah rallies two hundred and fifty others and confronts Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Although overall the takeaway on this parasha tends to be that Korah was a power-hungry usurper seeking to take Moses’s God-given leadership role for himself, Rashi and Ibn Ezra agree that “You have gone too far” means “you have taken more than you are due,” and neither seem to elaborate further on why Korah was mistaken in that belief about Moses. I have always seen this parasha as one about the demands for greater democracy and the dangers of a singular charismatic leader or generally of appointed rather than elected leadership.

Several years ago, on an episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound, (now Rabbi) Lex Rofeberg suggested a parallel explanation of the passing down of Torah, similar to the opening line of Mishnah Avot and the feminist retelling of it by Rabbi Jill Hammer. Maybe “Moses received the Torah [as we have traditionally been taught to understand it] and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.” Maybe “Miriam received Torah [as the feminist movement has reclaimed it for us] from God at Sinai and she transmitted it to her daughter. Her daughter transmitted it to the judges, Devorah and Yael, and Yael transmitted it to the daughter of Jephthah, and from them it passed to Naomi and to Ruth, and all the prophets who followed, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, learned it from them and transmitted it to the women of the great gathering.” And maybe, Korah received Torah of radical inclusivity and people-driven democracy, and transmitted it to the destroyed and lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They transmitted it to the Sons of Korah who wrote the Psalms of exile, beckoning us to stay rooted in our faith even when others strip us of our religious autonomy. The Sons of Korah transmitted it to Elisha ben Abuyah, and from him it went to Baruch Spinoza, then to Emma Goldman. Throughout history, the Torah of Korah was passed on down through the people considered in their time to be heretics and sinners, but whose voices were still so thoroughly Jewish in their challenges to the institutions that rule us that they refused to be silenced and washed away in history.

We are now the inheritors of all those iterations of Torah. We must not only accept the Torah of Moses, but also the Torah of Miriam, demanding that women and womb-bearers be given their voice as well. And also, the Torah of Korah, demanding democracy for all and the cessation of unjust leadership. The time has again come for us to challenge the institutions that rule us. Even if it means some of us may get swallowed up by the earth, morality demands that those who have the means and the privilege stand up against over-reaching leadership and speak truth to power. This may mean speaking directly to members of congress and pushing them to support meaningful legislation that protects our bodies and our religious values or to change the unchecked nature of the power of the courts. This may mean giving money to abortion access organizations. This may mean counseling and driving someone to their abortion appointment out of state. This may mean protesting and shutting down business as usual for the people who have made this dystopia a reality. Whatever it means for you, may you go into it bravely. There will likely be consequences for those who disrupt the status quo. But there will be far graver consequences if this ruling is allowed to stand.

May we find our chutzpah and our voice to speak truth to power as did our ancestor Korah. May over-reaching leaders be challenged publicly and unjust laws thrown onto the ground. And this time, may those who represent the people be allowed to stand as the Earth opens up and instead swallows those who only care for power.

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (AJR ’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.