June 11, 2021
Parashat Korach, the Torah portion that we read tomorrow morning, challenges us to think about leadership. Moses and Aaron are the leaders of the Israelites, appointed by God, but their cousin Korach and his band question their leadership: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” Thus ensues yet another difficult passage in the book of Numbers – God once again becomes enraged, Korach and his followers are consumed, and a terrible plague strikes the Israelites, killing thousands.
In a well-known passage from Pirkei Avot, the rabbis reflect on the confrontation: Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. Which is a controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is a controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation (Avot 5:17).
I’ve been reflecting on leadership a lot lately. The term “elected leaders” is, more often than not, an oxymoron. True leaders emerge from the unlikeliest places, often at the time they are most needed. In Israel, we are seeing a shake-up of leadership that could change the trajectory of Israeli politics if it is seen through to the end. What the results of such a shake-up might be is anyone’s guess. But real leadership in Israel seems to be emerging not from the top down, but from the bottom up.
Last Shabbat, in a lunch-and-learn session sponsored by B’ShERT (Rabbi Heidi Hoover’s congregation on Church Avenue), Robbi Gringras gave a remarkably clear and concise summary of the circumstances that led to the unrest in the latest bout of violence. Robbie was my guide and teacher on the Qushiyot program, and was my mentor through the year-long fellowship. One of the Zoom attendees asked him what the main concerns of the new government might be, and whether the situation in the West Bank and Gaza was high on the electoral priorities of Israelis. Robbie confirmed what I knew – that subject barely registers. The economy, religious-secular tensions, poverty, etc – these were the things that brought Israelis to the polls. The intractable problem of Palestinian/Israeli relations was hardly on the map.
So what does leadership look like? After a meeting yesterday with Audrey Korelstein and Abby Pitkowsky (another teacher and guide from the Jewish Education Project), Abby sent Audrey and me a resource with various grass-roots and business initiatives aimed at restoring peace and coexistence in Israel. There was, for example, a notice from the electric company to its employees after the first rockets were launched:
The holidays of Eid-Al-Fidr and Shavuot fall side by side this year.
As such, so do we, the workers of the Electric Company, stand shoulder to shoulder on days of rain and days of heat, days of tension and days of peace.
More than ever, we are committed to friendship, tolerance and coexistence.
With blessings for a hag sameach, wishing light and hope for you and your families.
General (ret.) Yiftach Ron-Tal, Chairman
Ofer Bloch, General Director
Miko Tzafarti, Chairman Association of HaArtzi Workers
But the Gaza war exposed some deep rifts in Israeli society, particularly among Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis living in mixed cities. For many years, these communities have been able to coexist in a kind of uneasy harmony, but the events of last month shook up that relationship and violence erupted in cities like Acco and Lod, among others.
There were the families from “Gan Shir,” a mixed Jewish-Arab and dual language (Hebrew-Arabic) kindergarten in Haifa, who gathered together on a Friday afternoon to demonstrate their commitment both to coexistence and the community they have built together. This was one of several gatherings organized by the parents.
There’s the “We Have No Other Haifa” drive, a tolerance campaign initiated by the Haifa Municipality with the participation of well-known Haifa figures, Jewish and Arab. Haifa is the first local authority to initiate such a project. “We Have No Other Haifa” is a call for reconciliation, tolerance, unity, and dialogue, emphasizing the importance of preserving the unique fabric of coexistence in Haifa.
These are only a few of the many initiatives born out of the terrible conflict in May. These are the seeds of hope – Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs coming together for the promise of something better, recognizing each other’s humanity, acknowledging that neighbors living in peace is better than the alternative. It’s unlikely that this ethic will move the electoral needle with regard to the Palestinians, but it’s a promising sign all the same – that for many Israelis, intolerance and enmity are to be fought against, not doubled-down on.
This is real leadership; when these individuals and organizations take a potentially controversial stand, when they fight the forces of intolerance, they are truly acting for the sake of Heaven. Would that our political leaders follow their example.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a truly peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine
Rabbi Sam Levine