A drash on Korach

by Rex

(I read this at my shul when I gave the drash this week)

Once there was a professor of anthropology at Harvard named Clyde Kluckhohn (not Jewish) who was a specialist on the Indians of the American Southwest. It was the 1950s, when Americans were richer and less cosmopolitan than we are today. Every summer wealthy East Coast professors and captains of industry would fly out to Kluckhohn’s ranch in New Mexico, which seemed incredibly exotic to them. He would throw cocktail parties and his wife Florence would prepare delicious little finger sandwiches full of a meat that was not quite fish and not quite chicken. Every year, a guest would invariably ask what it was, and Kluckhohn would loudly announce “rattlesnake!” At which point, at least one guest would vomit. “And that, my friend,” Kluckhohn would say, “is the power of culture.”

The power of culture: nothing physically had changed about the sandwiches. Only the guests’ interpretation of them had changed. There is nothing naturally disgusting about rattlesnake finger sandwiches — many cultures eat snake. It was only by growing up in their White American culture that his guests were socialized to believe rattlesnake was disgusting.

This shabbat we find ourselves faced with a similar situation: is this parshah chicken, or is it rattlesnake? The story of Korach troubles us. We don’t like to hear stories about Jews quarreling or hashem arbitrarily killing tons and tons of people. Hashem’s actions seem illiberal and disproportionate. Faced with rattlesnake, we try to convince ourselves we are eating chicken. We come up with complex interpretations to explain away everything we don’t like in a passage. We demonize a man whose actions as described in Torah don’t actually appear to be that terrible. We seize on minute ambiguities of meaning and push them and push them until we make the Torah’s cultural difference from us disappear. We convince ourselves that stories like this, or like Saul’s attack on the Amalekites, reaffirm the values we hold today rather than challenge them. This torah portion was written long ago and far away. It makes us feel uncomfortable, and so we try to neuter it, to explain away its powerful message.

But guess what folks? This week we’ve been served rattlesnake. As an anthropologist my training teaches me to embrace the discomfort. To explore it. To admit and examine it. To make it as visible as possible. And to learn from it. So that is what I want to do here.

For me, most difficult thing about this parshah is hashem’s action in the fourth aliyah, where he unleashes a deadly plague on everyone who complains to Moses about how the Korach incident was handled. Moses and Aaron actively work to thwart hashem’s designs and stop the plague from spreading.

Perhaps Jews in other times and places read this story and think: Hashem is right. We must punish all those who question authority until they absolutely obey all of our orders. Perhaps they read Korach as a way to legitimate their harsh choices as Jewish choices. But what does Korach teach our Jewish community here in Hawai‘i in 5774? What lessons are there for us if we admit that this is rattlesnake and not chicken? Is the lesson here really that the world is black and white, that the Jews have enemies, enemies which lie within, and that they deserve nothing less than instant annihilation?

Not to me. To me, our role models in this story are Moses and Aaron — the victors who show mercy on the losers and prevent the punishment of the innocent, even if the innocent’s complaints occasionally drive them crazy.

In a drash I gave right before pesach, I argued that the biggest threat that Jews in Hawai‘i faced was mock orange and mango allergies. The real test we faced,  I sad echoing Peter Beinart, was the test of Jewish power, the decision to act like Moses — or like Pharoah. In this parshah see it means to pass the test of Jewish power and to act like Moses: it means that we must make the effort to be merciful and understanding, even when we have the option of letting other people take the fall. We should ask ourselves: when we quarrel in our homes and our offices, do we hasten to take the metaphorical censor from the altar and aid those who have previously opposed us? Or do we imagine ourselves to be as powerful as hashem and inflict punishment on all those who doubt us? The first option decreases antisemitism in the world and restricts our enemies to mangoes and mock orange. The second, frankly, increases it.

Some people might find it disrespectful to say that we find the actions of hashem in Torah to be metaphorical rattlesnake meat. I disagree. I think we do our tradition a profound disservice if refuse to see it for what it is and interpret in terms that comfort us, but hide the truth. What makes someone Jewish is not that we blindly approve of everything that God does, or automatically turn the stories in Torah as a blueprint for life. We are the people who, as one of our best jokes goes, shake our fist at God and insist “He had a hat!” No. What makes us Jewish is that we study and restudy these texts — that we take them seriously, and build our lives around them. So this shabbat, let’s see this parshah as the ancient, disturbing, and important story it is. Unlike the rich privileged wasps who trample all over Indian country for kicks, we are not afraid to eat rattlesnake. Shabbat shalom.