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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

July 1, 2022

Shabbat Korach 5782: A Nechemta for America

Earlier this week, I was on a text message chain with some friends, planning for a July 4th gathering this weekend. At first, we stuck to the typical topics - who was bringing a side dish and who was bringing dessert, how many people were vegetarian or gluten free, and what time to arrive. Then our host said, “To tell you the truth, I’m not feeling particularly patriotic this year. I’m just looking forward to seeing all of you.

”This has been a hard and painful week, for many. I know it has been for me. With recent decisions from the Supreme Court - from the dismantling of reproductive rights, the continued ravaging of our environment, and the erosion of the separation of church and state - for many of us, our highest courts have not reflected our Jewish values. Even as we knew some of these difficult legal decisions were coming, it is no easier to hear them become our reality, against our will.

Many moved through this week in a daze, angry, hurt, or lost. Wandering in a desert.

In this week’s Torah portion, we find ourselves, still, in the midst of the desert. As you can imagine, the wandering and waiting to make our way to the promised land is making some people restless. Korach, who gives his name to this week’s parasha, organizes an uprising from among the people against Moses and Aaron. They try to supersede Moses’s leadership, and Aaron’s priestly authority.As you may know, it doesn’t end well for Korach. As we read:

“Korach gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Then the Presence of the Eternal appeared to the whole community, and the Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!’ … Scarcely had [they] finished speaking all these words when the ground under [the followers of Korach] burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16)

Certainly a dramatic way to take out people who challenge your authority. But wait - it gets worse!

We read:“[The supporters of Korach] went down alive into Sheol — that’s a Jewish approximation of Hell - more on that another time — with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”       (Numbers 17)

And still, it gets worse! I won’t keep quoting now, trust me on this one.

We know that there are many ugly, difficult, and challenging texts in our Torah. In settings like Torah study, in one-on-one conversations we have with each other, we parse and struggle with these difficult passages. We “wrestle our texts for a blessing,” as Rabbi Rachel Adler likes to teach.

But Jewish tradition offers us another way to respond. When we divide up our reading of Torah, publicly and aloud, from our scroll, into sections, or aliyot, the rabbis who set that structure did so in an intentional way. They never end a reading on a verse like the ones we read above — and then they all went down into the earth in a fiery blazing hole. No. We don’t end that way, even as we don’t skip over or ignore that those verses exist. We always end on a positive note. We always conclude a reading of Torah with what we call a nechemta, which literally means, a consolation, a form of comfort.

Now, in this particular set of verses, that I shared with you, from the unseemly end of Korach and his followers, it takes nearly 20 more verses to arrive at a nechmeta, an uplifting or neutral place on which to conclude that aliyah. In this case, God’s presence returns to the Mishkan, our traveling sanctuary, and we read: “Moses and Aaron approached the Tent of Meeting.” Moses and Aaron look for God, and God lets them in. And that is where the aliyah, the section of Torah reading, finally ends, after the earth swallows people up, we end with words of connecting with God.

I’m not about to say that Moses and Aaron connecting with God’s presence cancels out the verses that came before, with Korach and many others being swallowed up by the earth. That is not the job of a nechemta. nechemta is not the mirror image of what came before, it is not a mountain peak to a valley of the shadow of death. It is a small uplift. A moving forward. A positive note.

So where, in America, in July of 2022, do we go from here? How do we move from a challenging political moment into a holiday that celebrates our country, when we might not be feeling very celebratory?

Rather than an affront or a moment to avoid or ignore or downplay, I invite us to let this July 4th be a nechemta. A moment for comfort. A source of consolation. A time to gather with family and friends. A time to celebrate the parts of our country for which we are grateful, and our ability to continue to organize and to advocate, to pray and to protest. Remember, a nechemta is not a mountain peak, a moment of unfiltered joy. A nechemta is a small step in the right direction, a small uplift, a way forward.

As a nechmeta tonight, I offer this poem by Alden Solovy:

O Freedom: A Psalm of Protest (14)
A psalm of protest.
For guitar and drum.
O freedom.
O justice.
That tyrants can’t deny.
O freedom.
O justice.
This is our rally cry.
Let all who love this country,
Let all who love this land,
Stand up and shout with power,
Injustice will not stand.
Be strong against the hatred.
Be strong against deceit.
Organize to fight the cause
And never dare retreat.
Come sisters, now, come brothers,
Come join, come heed this call.
And we will fight together,
For freedom, one and all.
O freedom.
O justice.
That tyrants can’t deny.
O freedom.
O justice.
This is our rally cry.

 

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784