Write our own story. Parshat Korah
An opening disclaimer: I love my parents…. back to the sermon
Outside Berlin, you’ll find a cushy summer estate, a longtime favorite vacation spot of the German elite. The suburb is called Wanssee, now famously known as the site of the Wansee conference held there in January 1942. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the implementation of the “Final solution to the Jewish question.” Today, the estate houses a museum that tells the story of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Amidst the documents, letters, correspondence planning the expedited murder of millions is a room filled with quotes on the wall- not of Nazi generals, but of children of survivors, and children of Nazi leaders.
Ulrike Krüger, whose father was Director of the SS “Ancestral Heritage Society, writes, “”Yes, this guilt of my father is part of my life. I live and therefore I have responsibility. I can only endure this if I am willing to face this past again and again and thus take this horrific event seriously from a physical and psychological point of view. My challenge is to implement this awareness in my everyday life and to try to counter prejudices, disregard and destruction of humanity.”
Katrin Himmler, born 1967, great niece of Heinrich Himmler, writes “”When I was fifteen, one of my classmates suddenly asked in history class whether I was actually ‘related to Himmler’. I said yes, with a lump in my throat. The class was as quiet as a mouse. Everyone was wide awake and tense. But the teacher got nervous and carried on as if nothing had happened. She missed a chance to make us understand what still connects us, who will be born after, with these ‘old stories’.”
Parents aren’t perfect. Ancestors and History in general are not perfect. But there comes an often uncomfortable truth when we learn that those who came before us had questionable pasts, when their actions and motivations hurt others. How each of us responds to that truth, matters. For the family who do wrong for the wrong reason, and more confusingly those who do right for the wrong reason. To those who fill their mouths with abusive rhetoric and their fists with abusive right hooks.
To those who do not embrace or include,to those who live in a world in which “the good ‘ol days” were good for everyone, how do we speak to those truths? How do we recite Yizkor for the abusive parent (side note-click here)? How do we act in a way that distances us from those words and those actions, while simultaneously empowering us to follow a path filled with compassion and love?
I was thinking of this recently when I read about a young woman named Avery Sanford. Her father was not thrilled to be paying child support. When Avery turned 18, her father dumped 80,000 pennies in front of his daughter’s home as his final payment. Once Avery and her mother picked up the pennies,Avery and her mom decided to flip the coins, and the script. They donated his last child support payment – every penny – to Safe Harbor, a domestic abuse shelter.
We can get sucked down that rabbit hole of cancel culture, of hearing something so bad we cringe, we cancel that person, but we continue to say nothing or do nothing to change our own path. But If we look at the words of Ulrik and Katrin, the actions of Avery, the focus isn’t on canceling that relative. Rather, they modify their personal algorithm, their own story, to speak to truth, and more than speak or write, they ARE better. They live and are committed to a life of purpose, a life of agency.
So this week we’re talking about Korah, right? We know the story. Korah, who happens to be Moses and Aaron’s first cousin, wants power. The rabbis go back and forth as to why Korah is punished, many focusing on the intention and reasoning behind the power grab. In the end Korah, along with 249 co-conspirators were punished for their rebellion when God sent fire from heaven as the earth opened up, consuming all 250 of them. Immediately following, there is a plague that killed an additional 14,700 men. Ouch! And yet there was one group not included in that mass of 15,000: namely, the sons of Korah.
For those who are unaware, my Saturday afternoon teaching for the past 6 months has focused on the book of Psalms. When our people look for healing, we go to the Psalms, a collection written primarily, but not exclusively by King David. Since I teach roughly every three weeks, Those keeping score we will learn Psalm 8 next Saturday afternoon! Not to jump the gun, but I wanted to focus on a few psalms that we’ll probably encounter in the next 2-5 years, Psalms 42—49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, i.e. the psalms written by the sons of Korah.
Now having a basic storyline of Korah and his rebellion, aka Korah engulfed into the earth, we read the following:
Psalms 46:2-3(2) God is our refuge and stronghold, a help in trouble, very near. (3) Therefore we are not afraid though the earth reels, though mountains topple into the sea—
תהילים מ״ו:ב׳-ג׳(ב) אֱלֹהִ֣ים לָ֭נוּ מַחֲסֶ֣ה וָעֹ֑ז עֶזְרָ֥ה בְ֝צָר֗וֹת נִמְצָ֥א מְאֹֽד׃ (ג) עַל־כֵּ֣ן לֹֽא־נִ֭ירָא בְּהָמִ֣יר אָ֑רֶץ וּבְמ֥וֹט הָ֝רִ֗ים בְּלֵ֣ב יַמִּֽים׃
The sons of Korah thank God for being their refuge. They won’t be afraid even though the earth trembles. They say this having just felt the earth literally tremble. They are guided by faith,….They put their trust in a divine being that swallowed their father. In exploring the other Psalms, we learn that this isn’t out of fear. This is their response to Korah. This is their intentional and thought-out legacy.
Psalm 84 we read:
Psalms 84:2-5(2) How lovely is Your dwelling-place, O LORD of hosts. (5) Happy are those who dwell in Your house; they forever praise You.Selah.
תהילים פ״ד:ב׳-ה׳(ב) מַה־יְּדִיד֥וֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶ֗יךָ יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃ ׃ (ה) אַ֭שְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ ע֝֗וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃
Ashrei. While we get Bilam’s curse-turned-blessing in two weeks, here we have an intentional blessing to recognize joy to those who follow in God’s path. And finally, in one of their last Psalms, the sons of Korah write:
Psalms 85:10-13(10) His help is very near those who fear Him, to make His glory dwell in our land. (11) Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and well-being kiss. (12) Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven. (13) The LORD also bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce.
תהילים פ״ה:י׳-י״ג(י) אַ֤ךְ קָר֣וֹב לִירֵאָ֣יו יִשְׁע֑וֹ לִשְׁכֹּ֖ן כָּב֣וֹד בְּאַרְצֵֽנוּ׃ (יא) חֶסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ׃ (יב) אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח וְ֝צֶ֗דֶק מִשָּׁמַ֥יִם נִשְׁקָֽף׃ (יג) גַּם־יְ֭הֹוָה יִתֵּ֣ן הַטּ֑וֹב וְ֝אַרְצֵ֗נוּ תִּתֵּ֥ן יְבוּלָֽהּ׃
What amazing poetry. Truth springs up for the earth, from the same earth Korah is swallowed, justice from the heavens that sealed Korah’s fate. Korah’s sons focus on blessing, on righteousness, on lovingkindness,on truth on justice, words that inspire, that once again get us as a people through the dark times, through the despair of illness and loss, we use the words of Bnei Korah to HELP us remember that God is good and while our path isn’t always straight, it leads to a brighter tomorrow, for as the sons of Korah write in Psalm 84, “God is our sun and our shield, God bestows wisdom and honor.” The wisdom, that With truth, justice, and agency, we are masters of our own story, our own destiny.