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Insurrection & Dissent

07/08/2024 03:50:19 PM


Rabbi Faryn Borella

Rabbi Faryn's Drash on Korach 5784 given at Shabbat Services, Friday, July 5th.

It is January 6, 2021. I am in the car, on the last leg of my cross-country road-trip to Washington DC, where I will be quarantining at my grandmother’s apartment for a week to ensure I do not have covid before moving into a new home.

Originally, I had planned to arrive in DC that evening–January 6th– but delayed for a day due to a logistical snafu. So there I am, one day behind schedule, and I start receiving texts from friends who think that I am already in DC, checking in to make sure that I’m okay. I pull over to try and figure out what they are referring to, and see word of an insurrection at the Capitol. So I turn the radio to the news and listen to live-time reporting of an attempted coup as I continue to drive toward the heart of the rebellion.

I arrive in DC on January 7th and I expect to feel the energetic rumbles of the chaos of the day before. Instead, everything is eerily calm and quiet. Naturally, like a moth to a flame, I try to go toward the Capitol to see what can be learned by proximity. I couldn’t even get within a mile of it due to barriers and blockades, but they were shockingly unobtrusive and nondescript, without too much security. There is barely a soul to be seen. It is as if the day before had never happened.

This week, as we marked the Independence Day of this country and received word from the court on high that the President of the United States is now legally above the law (even if they incite insurrection), Torah asked us to read of its own rebellion–that of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram against Moses, Aaron and seemingly, the Divine.

In this rebellion, Korach, as a relative of Moses and Aaron and a part of the Levite tribe, questions why it is only Aaron’s line that get to serve as priests, while Dathan and Abiram question Moses’ leadership in taking them out of Mitzrayim and into the wilderness. Ultimately, what these rebels get for questioning the authority of Moses and Aaron–and by extension, the Divine– is death–Korach and his compatriots by fire, and Dathan, Abiram and their compatriots by an earthquake that swallows them whole. Can you imagine the silence and stillness that followed that insurrection?

This story, in many ways, is horrifying. It seems to tell us that if we doubt or question our leaders, the inevitable outcome is death. The moral seems to be that our role, as citizens, is to put our whole and unabiding trust in our leadership without question. To comply. To obey. So the rabbinic tradition goes to great lengths to demonstrate what a horrible person Korach was. That he was selfish and greedy, and that his rebellion was not, in fact, for the sake of the people (as he claimed), but for the sake of himself. He was corrupt and power-hungry, and therefore deserved his fate. The triumph of Moses and Aaron over Korach was the triumph of good and divine will over evil and greed.

I think many of us would thus see the insurrection on January 6th as a parallel to Korach’s rebellion–a rebellion, led by a selfish demagogue, that marketed itself as for the sake of the people, but, rather, was for the sake of consolidating power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

However, our modern-day insurrection did not end the same way as the insurrection ended in Torah. The earth did not swallow these rebels whole. Rather, the highest court of the land just last week passed a judgment that limits the ability to prosecute these insurrectionists, and just this week, seemingly provided immunity for our modern-day Korach for his role in this crime. In this case, it almost seems like the Divine will was on the insurrectionist’s side. Which leads me to wonder, in our contemporary circumstances, who really is Korach, and, in the original story, who really is right?

What I learned this week is that the Supreme Court has seemingly granted itself Divine-like authority, and used that authority to bolster the power of who the majority of them have chosen as their charismatic leader. Just as G-d dug in their heels and granted ultimate authority to Moses in this week’s parshah, so too did the Supreme Court grant ultimate authority and impunity to past, present and future Presidents of the United States.

So what happens if we choose to read the story of Korach against the grain of the rabbinic tradition? What happens if we read the questioning of authority by Korach and his compatriots as a good thing, and the seemingly dictatorial and violent crackdown on protest by Aaron, Moses and G-d as the problem? What happens if we actually see ourselves as a part of Korach’s rebellion?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live under a rule of law in which there are no checks on a ruler’s power. And I certainly don’t want to live under a rule of law where dissent is punishable by death. God’s model of leadership in the desert, built on an expectation of obedience without question, is not a model I want to continue to uplift. Yet that is the direction in which our country is going.

Therefore, it is our political and moral obligation to dissent.

Political theorists have long argued that a requisite component of a functioning democracy is dissent. As Helen James writes in her article “Civil Society and the Duty to Dissent”:

“dissent is the leaven which propels societies to be productive, innovative, creative, attractive to human beings from diverse cultural backgrounds; that dissent unleashes the regenerative capacities which enable societies to thrive and not atrophy.”

Our country currently needs our dissent more than ever. But as we learned both through the story of Korach, and as we are seeing in the US, Israel and around the world today, dissent is often met with violence, even by countries claiming the most democratic of values. Power is terrified of dissent, and will do whatever it can to stop it.

So, the question I want to leave us with this Shabbat is, how can we dissent so big and so wide that no earth could possibly swallow us? How can we dissent so big and so loud that we cannot possibly be silenced?

Sat, July 20 2024 14 Tammuz 5784