The peace of the synagogue is one of the most fragile and important values in Judaism. I say fragile because there are so many stories about how we Jews have destroyed congregations over all kinds of issues such as Kosher dietary laws, finances, clergy, ethical infractions between professionals and volunteer leadership. Sometimes the issue is simply about who has the power over the leadership of the congregation, in other words, one group is in power and another is not. These are just a few of the typical examples of perennial issues that afflict congregations.
We call the value shalom bait or peace in the home. To disturb the peace in a synagogue only takes one issue or one person who is upset and wants to express their anger or seeks simply a fair solution to a problem in the congregation. How do we cope when person or a few take it upon themselves to stir the pot for whatever they believe or say is the egregious problem in an institution?
I discuss this topic because this Shabbat’s Torah portion is Korach and it is the ultimate story in the Torah about a man named Korach who was one of the levites and who challenged Moses’ authority to lead the Jewish people. In the book of Numbers the narrative describes Korach organizing a group of 250 princes or levites in the aristocracy who accused Moses in unison. “It is too much for you.” “For the entire assembly-all of them-are holy and God is among them, so why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God?”
Moses is stunned and bows before God seeking guidance. He turns to the people and the rebel Levite princes, declaring that on the next day God will reveal who is authentically holy and who God will choose to lead the people and be God’s prophet.
He instructs them to take their ritual fire pans and place incense inside them. Then God will choose who is the authentic leader of the people. Moses gives it to Korach scolding him for not being appreciative that he is a Levite and what a privilege it is that he is allowed to lead worship in the Tabernacle.
The drama intensifies and Moses accuses all the disciples and allies of Korach as essentially traitors against Moses, Aaron and God. Things get even worse when one ally family in the Levites refuses to join Moses and help him out to stand up to them. His allies criticize him for taking them out of the land of Eygpt. They even imply that they want to go home, back to slavery.
To make a long story short: After Moses told the rest of the people to back away from these rebels knowing full well that there would soon be punishment exacted against these people. At the end of the day an earthquake occurred and the allies of Korach fell into the crack on the ground and it swallowed up all the 250 co-conspirators of Korach.
What is even worse was that afterwards the people rallied against Aaron and Moses blaming them for killing Korach and his followers. Consequently Moses performs the same task of bringing out the fire pans and telling the people to back away from these complainers. And once again by the end of it all 14,000 or more Israelites died that day from a plague that God brought against these rebel rousers.
Moses drained the swamp, dispensed with his adversaries, and caused Korach to die in a blaze of fire and brought death and destruction to the people. And for what? Moses appointed someone else to be a chief elder in the community. And where do we go from here?
The lessons from the Korach story are many. One in particular is that power is toxic. The line of authority of who rules an organization let alone the core values is also critical. Lineage is crucial in terms of who is in the line of the leadership model as well.
One cannot help but wonder why Moses couldn’t have found a peaceful way to subdue Korach and his followers. More questions like; How could they have come to a compromise to solve their resentments? What happens when there is no room for compromise such as the idea of removing Moses from being God’s appointed prophet?
There are good lessons from this painful story for all religious institutions including the Jewish congregations. Today synagogue leaders and professionals, clergy and others, probably would being doing a good thing to have developed mechanisms in place for mediating problems and addressing anger issues that could threaten the stability of a congregation. In the past the Union of Reform Judaism used to have a commission to deal with conflict issues with questionable effectiveness.
Our congregation is a strong one and yet even the best of our congregations is vulnerable to internal conflict and power struggles. Using brute power in the Torah’s case against Korach may have been the only solution to resolve this power struggle. Today, however, every congregation should have the means to resolve conflicts peacefully before any issue becomes like a virus and infects an entire community. All houses of worship should do whatever they can to institute methods of keeping shalom inside the congregation. When they do so, therefore,shalom bait will be preserved.