The US Open: Kol Am B’kol Ram
Golf. It’s a game of inches. A perfect swing is a pleasure to watch, and yet there’s awesomeness to the uncertainty, knowing that a gust of wind, a divot in the grass, can make your golf ball fall into the water or into the hole. I love watching this dichotomy of skill with uncertainty take place in a tournament. In particular, I love watching the U.S. Open Championship. It’s a field open, by way of qualifying rounds, to the regular-average Shmulik. It rotates each year, with play conducted on some of the most difficult public golf courses in the world, leaving grown men lying in the dust of the inconvenient sand traps and water hazards. With apologizes to our local TPC, it is my favorite golf tournament to follow. A few months ago, I may have done a double take when I saw the name Rory MCilroy, confusing it with Roy Macavoy, the title character played by Kevin Costner in the golf movie Tin Cup. By now, the golf world is well aware of US Open champion MCilroy and his talents. They are more than well aware in fact. Even before his victory this past weekend, Mcilroy was lauded by his European counterparts, praised by many of his peers for his stellar performances. Even more refreshing is how his peers praise Mcilroy’s character. In a world where sports heroes dub themselves “The Truth”, “The Great Aristotle” His “Airness” or even “King”, where athletes constantly refer to themselves in the 3rd person, Rory’s actions earn him the respect of his peers and the media. He is humble and appreciative. What’s not to like about that? In fact, everyone seems to love Rory. This past weekend was a true love fest- a pleasant surprise since spectators are often no better than ego inflated superstars- uniting to villainize high profile athletes. From the sports field to the political arena, we often unite because of a common enemy, not because of common goals. We breathe a sigh of relief when someone we despise struggles. We compare and critique, raise our role models so high when we know they are only human and can never meet those lofty expectations. Sometimes we think, “we can do better, we can be better role models if given the shot! Why do we raise others so high when maybe we ourselves deserve to be put on the pedestal, to sit on the dais, to wear the crown of fame and fortune?” As a free nation, aren’t we entitled to these things and more?
Some of these thoughts are easy to recognize- familiar to some more than others. They are also the thoughts of this week’s antagonist, Korah. On the surface, Korah is an advocate for egalitarianism and democracy. But in the Torah’s mind, Korah’s form of egalitarianism may be considered idol worship because it ultimately leads to believing that man and God are equal too. Dennis Prager states in the book The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, “The Korah argument is appealing: We are all equal in our holiness, in our goodness, and in just about every way; no one is better than anyone else- not even the man who led the Jews out of Egypt and talked directly with God.” The dangers lie in the fact that …”no achievement is necessary. No excellence need be pursed. If you breathe, you’re holy.” Titles are not earned as recognition of time and effort.
With strong personal ambition, we could praise Korah for his raw honesty and candor, but there’s more to this story. Korah is different. If only he would think to “Leggo my ego.” His challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, not love of God or of the Israelites. Unlike Moses, who hesitated to take the leadership that God offered, Korah seeks to grab it for himself. Tradition interprets the opening of the parashah–literally “And Korah took”-to mean that he took himself apart from the people. He had the “its all about me” attitude, a sense of entitlement, that he should receive a trophy simply because his parents signed him up for this group called the Jewish people. Unlike Moses, Korah sees the whole story as being about himself. Where was the humility? – taking away the I’s and the me’s, standing humble before God, earning your reputation by ethical action and proper demeanor. Let’s take a look at Moshe’s response to Korah’s challenge. In “falling on his face,” as the text describes, Moshe seems willing to accept the possibility that he is not God’s only chosen leader, and that, perhaps, the entire nation IS equally holy.
Our parsha is often difficult to grasp because there are important lessons we can learned from the much maligned Korah: So maybe it just wasn’t Korah’s time. One might think Korah might be appreciated after his death like Galileo or Van Gogh. I want to root for him. On the surface, it seems Korah argues that we are all equally holy, the Jewish people being an exclusive fraternity. But Korah thought this meant only he should be entitled entrance to the exclusive party. Korah operated under the guise of inclusivity. We understand, however, that it’s a tough balance- to have ambition for change without losing sight of the community’s needs.
The US Open received bonus coverage on Monday for another reason that was not Rory Mcilroy. In an introductory video piece involving children reciting our pledge of allegiance, NBC dubbed out the words “under God”. Pundits complained of the lack of religious tolerance. What many people failed to realize was that NBC also took out the words “one nation” and “indivisible”. No matter what differences we may have, how important are these words as well? As with the story of the Israelite people, or even as a religious community today, how vital is it to be one nation, under God, undivided by petty ego and greed? How powerful can we become when we are one voice, kol echad, singing b’kol ram, a great voice? How can a collective voice inspire liberty and justice, gratitude and hope for all?
Ironically, one such voice is that of the Sons of Korah. Rabbi Perry Netter writes “One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy by writing holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.” 13 Psalms in all, most notably Psalm 40, the psalm recited in a house of mourning. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. The sons of Korah found holiness in humble personal prayer- knowing there’s a higher being than one’s self and having ownership, authorship over their conversation with the divine.
In the amidah, one of our most important tefillot, we have moments for ourselves. The common rabbinic line “please add in your own personal prayers and thoughts” is not a modern invention. The conclusion of our Amidah is a personal supplication- by definition it is about one’s own prayer moment. And yet moments before, it is all about us, all about communal voice and song. It’s as if we participate two parallel services in which we balance self with community. On top of that, we experience these prayer moments by euphemistically wearing what JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen describes as “stereo headphones.” One ear is always listening to this moment, to the voice of the service, while the other is tuned in to the voice of generations before us. The headphones help us monitor what we do here and have done for centuries, in this sacred space, in this sacred time.
As we strive to create what I’d call “kol am b’kol ram”- the voice of the nation in a great singular voice”, it’s time to try something a little different. Joey Weisenberg, Musical Director of the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, writes of what he calls the “Spontaneous Jewish Choir.” A niggun, a simple melody, repeated dozens of time, brings together a community of daveners to create one voice, again one simple melody. No harmonies, no extra notes- the power of one group singing one pitch. This morning, we’ll transition from sermon to song, easing into our Musaf through a new melody.
The idea is to lose count of how many times we’ve chanted it, to lose one’s self for a moment. We have to be in an unordinary mindset to accomplish this this morning. It’s not something we would post on Youtube saying, “Look what I did!” but rather perform with an appreciation of a shared and unorthodox musical experience. We’ll chant together- in the center of the sanctuary, creating a davening core. We will be the sound system. My only request is that as you pick up the melody, you join in. I invite you to take a moment to come closer to the middle of the sanctuary.
Our service combines personal prayer with communal song. We will attempt to fuse the two- to begin as one voice, carrying over into the Amidah and at its conclusion, finding a moment of peace, serenity and introspection. May the thoughts in our heads, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be raw, be humbling and be meaningful to each of us who embraces the moment. May we find hope…and let us build towards a life in the pursuit of holiness, as one community.