Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rebel, Rebel: a lesson from a bar mitzvah

Modern-day people have a hard time with Parshat Korach, the section of the Torah we read in synagogue today (Leviticus 16-18).  Korach is one of three tribal leaders who stand up to Moses and Aaron and accuse them of taking all the power and the glory for themselves.    The response?  God causes the ground to open up and swallow them and their supporters.  Impressive, but hardly an answer to the charge.

The next thing you know, the “whole Israelite community” blames Moses and Aaron: “You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!”  The response?  More death.  Plague spreads through the camp and kills something like 2% of the entire population.  Only when Aaron stands “between the dead and the living” and burns incense as an atonement offering does the plague go away.

I want to think a lot more about this story and what we can learn from it about how to lead, how to rebel, and what makes a claim to exercise just and rightful authority valid from a Jewish perspective.  Expect a series of blog posts about that.  But first, let me share what David Matthews said at this bar mitzvah today at Temple B’nai Brith.  

David pointed out that even though Aaron was personally singled out for attack, he was the first to rush in and stop the violence of the plague from spreading.  This is consistent with what we hear about Aaron in other stories, where he is consistently pictured as a peacemaker.  David traced a line from Aaron to modern-day practitioners of nonviolence, including Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the vast majority of the Occupy movement.  In his view, they are all followers of Aaron.

What an ingenious interpretation!  David makes us look at Aaron (and to a lesser extent, Moses) as not just calling down divine wrath on people who oppose their authority.   He makes us see Aaron as the inspiration for generations of people who oppose authority, as well.  Yes, one person can be both.  Reality can be that complex. The Jewish tradition can contain resources for both authoritarian rule and rebellion.  And, a thirteen-year-old can be that acute.

Look for more in future posts.

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