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Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer 1

TORAH-FAX 5774 KORACH
KORAC74
TOO MUCH RIGHTNESS CAN KILL YOU
BY RABBI JACK RIEMER
I want to study with you today one aspect o the story o Korach and Moses which
I must te!! you I ne"er rea!!y appreciated unti! now# Two peop!e ena$!ed me to see
this o!d story in a way that I ne"er rea!!y understood it $eore# One was the great
Israe!i poet% &ehuda Amichai% and the other was my mentor and riend% Ra$$i
'o!e Ke!man#
Amichai has a poem ca!!ed( )*ama+om ,he$o Anu Tsod+im-% .rom the /!ace
'here 'e Are Right% and this is what it says(
).rom the p!ace where we are right
.!owers wi!! ne"er grow
In the spring#
The p!ace where we are right
Is hard and tramp!ed
0i+e a yard#
1ut dou$ts and !o"es
2ig up the wor!d
0i+e a mo!e% a p!ow%
And a whisper wi!! $e heard in the p!ace
'here the ruined
*ouse once stood#-

2o you understand what the poet is saying here3 ).rom the p!ace where we are
right% !owers wi!! ne"er grow#- The !and o those who are sure that they are right
is hard and unyie!ding# It is more !i+e a stony courtyard than it is !i+e a erti!e ie!d#
There are no dou$t in the hearts and minds o those who are certain that they are
a!ways right# And there is no !o"e in the hearts o those who are sure that they are
comp!ete!y right and that those who disagree with them are comp!ete!y wrong# 1ut
things on!y grow where there are dou$ts# 2ou$ts ena$!e us to see what we $e!ie"e
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rom a dierent perspecti"e% and sometimes the interchange $etween what I
$e!ie"e and what you $e!ie"e !eads to the $irth o a new idea% that is $etter than
either my origina! idea or your origina! idea# And i there is !o"e $etween two
peop!e who disagree% that !o"e ena$!es them to !isten to each other5s ideas and to
grow rom the interchange#
That is what I thin+ the poet means when he says( ).rom the p!ace where we are
right% !owers wi!! ne"er grow-# The p!ace where we are sure that we are right% and
that on!y we are right% is a co!d and stony ground% a ground on which nothing can
e"er grow#
Ra$$i 'o!e Ke!man% 6ichrono !i"racha% e7pressed the same truth% not in poetry%
$ut in this story% which his daughter% Ra$$i 8aamah Ke!man% reca!!ed to me
recent!y#
)There was once a young discip!e o a great ra$$inic master who wanted to marry
the daughter o a "ery wea!thy $usinessman# The $usinessman agreed to the match%
and he agreed to support the young man or a certain num$er o years whi!e he
studied% $ut he set down one condition# The young man must study on his own% and
not spend any time studying with his ormer teacher# The reason the ather9in9!aw
set this condition was that he wanted his son9in9!aw to $e an origina! scho!ar and
not :ust a discip!e o some$ody e!se#
The young man accepted the condition% $ut o"er time% he ound that he cou!d not
a$ide $y it# *e missed his o!d teacher# *e yearned to $e with him and to !earn rom
his wisdom# And so% e"ery so oten% when his ather9in9!aw was not around% he
wou!d s!ip o to study with his ormer teacher#
Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer ;
'hen his ather9in9!aw ound out what his son9in9!aw was doing% he was urious#
*e said to him% )&ou made an agreement< &ou signed a contract that you wou!d
not do this< It was on this condition that I !et you marry my daughter% and it was on
this condition that I ha"e supported you a!! these years# &ou $ro+e your word<
And thereore% I am no !onger going to support you<-
Ra$$i Ke!man said( 'as the ather9in9!aw not right3 The young man had $ro+en
his word# 'as his ather9in9!aw not entit!ed to cance! his agreement to support
him3 There is no =uestion that the ather9in9!aw was !ega!!y right# Any court that
read the agreement wou!d ha"e ound or him#
'as the son9in9!aw not right too3 *e yearned to ha"e the $eneit o his teacher5s
wisdom% and so he s!ipped away in secret in order to study with him# Can you
$!ame anyone or wanting to study Torah3 'as he not right to do what he did3
The answer is( no# A dea! is a dea!# I you sign an agreement% you ha"e no right to
$rea+ it# /eriod#
And what a$out the young man5s ormer teacher3 Can you $!ame him or wanting
to teach his discip!e3 Can you $!ame him or wanting to he!p this young man
deepen his +now!edge o Torah3 Can you $!ame him or wanting to teach his
a"orite student% e"en i it had to $e in secret3 'as he not right too3 The answer
is( no# The teacher had no !ega! right to encourage his student to $rea+ his contract#
That5s c!ear#
Ra$$i Ke!man used to say( the ather9in9!aw was right# There is no =uestion a$out
that# A dea! is a dea!# The son9in9!aw was wrong> he shou!d not ha"e signed an
agreement% and then gone $ac+ on it# ,tudying with a great master may $e a good
deed% $ut sti!!% it does not :ustiy $rea+ing your !ega! agreement# And the ormer
master that the young man went $ac+ to was wrong too# ?"en though it is hard to
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turn down a student who wants to study with you% you are not supposed to
encourage someone to $rea+ his word#
1ut do you +now what3 Ra$$i Ke!man said% )The ather9in9!aw was right% and the
son9in9!aw was wrong% and his teacher was wrong% there is no =uestion a$out that#
1ut the Mashiach wi!! on!y come or those who are not right#-
I !o"e that answer% don5t you3 1ecause% !i+e &ehudah Amichai5s poem% it warns
against the danger o a!ways $eing right# It teaches us that there is a "a!ue in $eing
open to the possi$i!ity that the other person may a!so $e right% or at !east part!y
right% and that% i you want to grow in understanding and wisdom% you ha"e to $e
open to the possi$i!ity that you are on!y part!y right% and that your opponent may
a!so $e part!y right#
I must te!! you that I ne"er understood one dimension o the story o Korach and
Moses unti! I read this poem and this story# ,o% !et me go o"er the story again% e"en
though we are a!! ami!iar with it% and thin+ that we understand it% and !et me read
it again% this time as a =uarre! $etween two peop!e( one o whom is a$so!ute!y
certain that he is comp!ete!y right% and one o whom is open to the possi$i!ity that
he :ust might not $e entire!y right#
The story $egins with Korach ma+ing an accusation# *e says that a!! the peop!e
are e=ua!!y ho!y% and that thereore Moses has no right to ru!e o"er them# *e
accuses Moses o arrogance in setting himse! up a$o"e the peop!e# And e"en
though the traditiona! commentators a!! agree that this was :ust demagoguery% and
that he did not mean what he was saying@that it was :ust a way to ire up the
peop!e and get them to $e on his side 9 !et us grant or a moment that Korach :ust
might ha"e $een sincere% and that he might ha"e meant what he was saying#
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'hat is Moses5s reaction to this accusation3 The Torah says% )Bayishma Moshe%
"ayipo! a! pana"-@that when Moses heard this accusation% he e!! upon his ace#
'hat does that mean3
I used to thin+ that Moses e!! upon his ace in e7haustion or in disappointment#
Ater a!! he has done or this peop!e 9 this is the way they treat him3 I a!ways
thought that he e!! upon his ace in e7haustion and in despair# That is what I
thought the passage meant# 1ut one o the commentators@orgi"e me $ut at the
moment I don5t remem$er which one@one o the commentators says that )Moses
e!! upon his ace- means that Moses went into himse!# *e c!osed his eyes to what
was going on around him or a ew moments% and !oo+ed $ac+ o"er his !ie to see
i there was any truth to this accusation# *ad he perhaps !orded o"er the peop!e
more than he shou!d ha"e3 *ad he perhaps raised himse! o"er the peop!e
improper!y3 And on!y then% on!y ater he had e7amined his conscience% and
con"inced himse! that he had not done any o the things o which he was $eing
accused% on!y then did he stand up and answer the accusations o Korach# Korach
may ha"e $een sure that he was right# Moses was not so sure#
Moses in"ites Korach and his cohorts to come orward and :oin in a test# *e says%
)&ou each ta+e pans and put ire and incense in them% and Aaron wi!! do the same
thing% and !et us see which pan Cod wi!! respond to#- I a!ways assumed that Moses
was sure that Cod wou!d respond to Aaron5s pan% and that is why he oered this
test# 1ut the story does not necessari!y ha"e to $e read that way# /erhaps what it
means is that Moses meant it to $e a rea! test% that Moses was content to !et Cod
decide who was the rightu! !eader% and that i the test had come out in a"or o
Korach and his cohorts% he wou!d ha"e $een a$!e to accept that#
Then% urther on in the story% Moses sends a message to the re$e!s who ha"e risen
up against him# *e says to them% )Come up and !et us ta!+# /erhaps we can arri"e
Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer D
at some +ind o a compromise#- And they answer% )'e wi!! not go up< 'e ha"e
nothing to say to you# 'e are right and you are wrong# That5s it# ,ett!ed#-
Rashi puts it "ery we!!# *e says that $ecause they wou!d not go up% thereore they
went down# Their sin was not so much re$e!!ing against Moses# Their sin was
reusing to e"en ta!+ to him to see i their dispute cou!d somehow $e reso!"ed#
And it was or this 9 or their certainty that they and on!y they were right 9 that
Korach and his a!!ies were destroyed# Rightness can +i!! you% i you thin+ it is a!!
on your side#
0et me spe!! this !esson out% irst as it app!ies to the peop!e who !i"e in Israe!% and
then as it app!ies to each one o us who are here today# Israe! is terri$!y di"ided
and the di"ision is $etween peop!e on $oth sides who are sure that a!! the right is
on their side#
The secu!ar Eews are right> they rea!!y are% when they say that the charedim shou!d
carry their air share o the $urdens o citi6enship# They are right when they say
that our $!ood is not cheaper than yours% and that i you are citi6ens% you must $ear
the $urdens o citi6enship% :ust as we do# They are right# There is no =uestion a$out
that#
1ut they are not entire!y right# They need to rea!i6e that i it were not or those who
studied the Torah down through the centuries% there wou!d $e no state o Israe!
today# They need to +now that i it were not or the pious peop!e who wrote their
=uestions in *e$rew and who recei"ed their answers in *e$rew% there wou!d $e no
*e$rew or the modern Eews to re"i"e# They need to +now that they are right% $ut
not comp!ete!y right#
Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer 7
And the *aredim must ee! the same way# In what other state in the wor!d cou!d
they ee! ree to pic+et and to protest on $eha! o their right to o$ser"e the Torah
as they understand it% as they are in Israe!3 In what other state in the wor!d cou!d
they demand and recei"e the +ind o support that their schoo!s and their students
recei"e in Israe!3 ,hou!d not a measure o gratitude come with this support that
they recei"e3 And do they not ha"e an o$!igation to respect the rights and the
needs o those who do not see things the way they do3
They may $e right% $ut as 'o!e Ke!man said( The mashiach wi!! on!y come or
the sa+e o those who are not right% or at !east or the sa+e o those who do not
c!aim that a!! the right is on their side% and none is on the side o the other# .or
nothing grows in a society that thin+s that way#
And so it is with the haw+s in Israe! who sincere!y $e!ie"e that the do"es are
endangering the security o the state% and so it is with the do"es in Israe! who
sincere!y $e!ie"e that the haw+s are endangering the security o the state# 1oth
sides need to !isten to the partia! truth o the other side% and $oth sides need to
grant the partia! truth o the other side% or i they cannot !isten to each other% the
state wi!! $e undermined more $y that than $y their dierent points o "iew<
0isten to how the 'omen o the 'a!! ight or their right to pray their way at the
'a!! and how they ca!! those who o$:ect names% and !isten to how those who ha"e
a!ways prayed at the wa!! their way and who are oended $y these women ca!!ing
them names# I you do% you wi!! understand why one wise charedi ra$$i whom I
+now says that Cod% who dwe!!s on the other side o the 'a!!% must $e groaning at
the $ad $eha"ior o them $oth#
0et us mo"e rom ta!+ing a$out Israe!% or I ne"er ee! "ery comorta$!e :udging
Israe! rom here# 0et us mo"e rom :udging Israe! and !et us !oo+ at ourse!"es#
Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer F
0isten to the ierce de$ate that goes on within our own community# 0isten to the
name9ca!!ing that goes on $etween the groups in Eewish !ie# 0isten to how one
side says that E ,treet is a traitorous organi6ation and shou!d not $e a!!owed to
spea+ to our young peop!e% and !isten to how the other side says that AI/AC is a
puppet o the Israe!i go"ernment that shou!d not $e a!!owed to spea+ to our youth#
0isten to how $oth groups on so many issues insist that a!! the right is on their side%
and that their opponents are comp!ete!y wrong# And remem$er &ehudah Amicha5s
warning( 8othing grows in soi! !i+e this# 8othing grows in a p!ace where we are
comp!ete!y right and our opponents are comp!ete!y wrong#
It is easy to critici6e the name9ca!!ing and the di"isi"eness that goes on in Israe!# It
is easy to denounce the ways in which the do"es and the haw+s% the secu!arists and
the charedim% the !i$era!s and the conser"ati"es treat each other there# 1ut that is a
cheap shot% or those o us who do not !i"e there# Instead o doing that% !et us !oo+
into our own $eha"ior here at home# *ow many o us !i"e in ami!ies in which
parents and chi!dren dismiss each other% or denigrate each other% or ca!! each other
names% instead o !istening to each other and !earning rom each other3 *ow many
o us $e!ong to organi6ations that dup!icate each other% and that ought to merge
with each other% $ut are una$!e to do so% $ecause each $e!ie"es that a!! right is with
them% and none is with the other side3
The story o Korach "ersus Moses is a story that is a!! too re!e"ant% that is painu!!y
re!e"ant% in our time# I gi"e Korach the $eneit o the dou$t and $e!ie"e that he
rea!!y $e!ie"ed he was right# 1ut I ho!d him responsi$!e or $e!ie"ing that on!y he
was right# That was his sin% and it is oten ours#
,o !et us !earn today the art o compromise# 0et us !earn today the art o !istening
to those with whom we disagree to see i we can ind the +erne! o truth within
Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer G
their arguments# .or i we can !earn to do that% our arguments with each other wi!!
$e more persuasi"e% and the resu!ts o our disputes wi!! $e more producti"e#
0et me te!! you one more word which I !earned rom Ra$$i 'o!e Ke!man# I
remem$er how once he was arguing on $eha! o the concepts o p!ura!ism and
mutua! respect% and someone cha!!enged him# ,omeone stood up and said( )Can
you p!ease te!! me where the idea o p!ura!ism is ound in the c!assic Eewish
sources3 'here does it say that we shou!d $e respectu! to those who are against
the "a!ues that we $e!ie"e in3-
I cou!d ha"e answered that =uestion with ha! a do6en sources% and I am sure that
'o!e cou!d ha"e too# 1ut this what he said( )The act that you can stand up and
as+ that =uestion% and that no$ody says( 'ho are you to $e so presumptuous as to
spea+ in the name o the tradition3 And the act that I can answer this =uestion% and
no$ody says( 'ho are you to $e so presumptuous as to answer in the name o the
tradition is in itse! the answer to your =uestion#-
And he was right# It is good to tra"e! through !ie in the company o those who
see+ the truth% or you can !earn rom $eing with them# It is hard to tra"e! through
!ie in the company o those who possess@or who thin+ that they possess a!! the
truth% or they are not open to !earning and thereore they cannot teach#
0et me remind you o what we say and what we do e"ery time we inish a $oo+ o
the Torah# 'e stand or the !ast words% and we wish each other we!!# 'e say to
each other( )*a6a+% ha6a+% "initcha6e+-# And this is what I $e!ie"e that $!essing
rea!!y means# It means -May you $e strong% and may I $e strong% and may we
strengthen each other-# That is true p!ura!ism#
Too Much Rightness…Korac74 – Riemer 1H
And thereore% this is my prayer on the ,a$$ath when we read the archetypa! story
o what happens when peop!e ight o"er who is right in the Torah( the story o
Korach and Moses# May the $!essing that we say each time we inish a $oo+ o the
Torah come true in our organi6ations% in our synagogues% in our homes% and in our
!i"es#
May we not $e so sure that we% and on!y we% possess a!! the right and that those we
disagree with possess none o the right% or as Korach and his cohorts !earned(
$eing too right can $e !etha!# And to this% !et us a!! say( Amen#