Scene opens: The people are dancing and doing all sorts of debauchery around the golden calf. They have given up on their leader. He’s been up on the mountain too long and they think he was eaten by a wolf or something. In the midst of their partying Moses appears, down from the mountain, changed and he’s pissed! And in one of my favorite scenes in the campiest movie version of our people’s journey through Sinai, Moses, a.k.a. Charlton Heston, takes the tablets and crashes them down into the calf. And with a nod to this week’s Torah portion, the earth opens up and the calf and all those around it are swallowed up into the ground.
This week, we are further along in our Torah reading than that Sinai scene. The Israelites are in the wilderness and they seem to finally be on their way Israel. But, as with many meaningful journeys, another obstacle appears. A man named Korah, and some of his pals, decide to question Moses’ leadership. They say to Moses, “Who put you in charge? We’re just as holy as you are. Who made you the boss of me!” And like petulant children, they rebel. And before their rebellion can build too much momentum, they are swallowed up into the ground. God is in no mood to put up with any rebellion.
Ironically, I heard this Torah reading at the Monday morning minyan of the Women Cantors’ Network. Three wonderful readers chanted beautiful Torah while surrounded by 100 plus women who participated fully, in harmony. Why do I say ironically? Because in an earlier time, and even now in some communities, this very experience would be seen as a rebellion and I’m sure that there are those who feel the participants should be swallowed up into ground. My experiences davening with the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem confirm this.
I met a woman named Sarah, who a few days after the conference, was being ordained as a rabbi. Sarah lives in Europe* where she leads a small traditional, egalitarian minyan. The traditional Jews do not honor her at all, and probably consider her rebellious. But yet she is bringing Judaism to people who might not otherwise participate, a bit like Moses bringing the Torah to the people.
So how do we mesh the lessons of Korah with our world today? How do we find personal meaning in Judaism in this changing world? I would like to suggest that perhaps what is often seen as rebellion is really transformation. We are not changing Torah, but we are transforming how we relate to Torah and bring it to the people. Torah remains, but the way we interpret it depends on what we bring to it.
At the conference we heard Rabbi Jeffrey Summit talk about the transformative power of simply having an aliyah to the Torah. He told stories about how simply saying the blessing before the reading can be a powerful experience. How could it not? After all, the entire Torah service is meant to be a dramatic reenactment of Moses sharing the Torah with the children of Israel at the base of Mt. Sinai.
It is clear that the Torah has the power to create change and motivate all who come near. It is my hope that the change to come will be for good, so that any rebellion will not cause us to be swallowed up.
*Sarah asked that I do not use her real name or location.