Parshat Korach: A Moment That Defined a Leader

This week I had the pleasure of seeing my extended family on Zoom as we gathered to celebrate my great-niece’s third birthday.  I watched the little Zoom squares appear as each family signed on.  Over the last 15 months, there have been new babies born into some of these families, and I was able to see these babies, who are now almost toddlers.  But it was more than seeing the babies that caught me off guard, it was seeing their older siblings.  When I last saw the older siblings, they were mostly the only children in their families and now they are big brothers and sisters.  I watched them sit next to their younger siblings and I listened as the 3 year old party girl asked each new face what their middle name was.  She was extremely interested in middle names, not so much in first names.  If anyone didn’t have a middle name, she happily assigned them one.  When we asked her what her middle name is, she ignored her actual name and headed for the Disney movie “Frozen” – her new middle name is now Elsa.

Children have wonderful playfulness with names in ways adults would never try.  Some of it is intentional and much of it isn’t.  One of the toddlers in my family couldn’t pronounce another family name: Chava.  Instead, she mispronounced it as ‘Hug-a’.  It stuck.  Unknowingly, the toddler had keyed into a warm expression of sharing a hug and now the mispronounced name is too meaningful to be let go.  She is ‘Chava’ in most of her life but when the family gathers in numbers she will easily be called ‘Hug-a’ by everyone, and she happily embraces it.

We are often renamed, reidentified and subsequently rediscover ourselves, and hidden aspects of who we can become, by the insight of an innocent moment.  We welcome the endearment when it touches something about us we thought lay too deep to be noticed.

There’s a wonderful meme on social media that says: ‘Picture this: You’re 20 years old and at war fighting evil, you’re a skilled machine, 6’2” tall, 240 pounds of all muscle.  You are the epitome of the man in his prime -nothing can stop you.  Flash forward 41 years: people call you Peepaw because your granddaughter couldn’t say it right.’

We will answer to these names because they bring out something unique within us.  It raises the question of the mysteries that lie within each of us and the moments they find their ways out.

In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Korach, we are told of the extreme moment when the earth opens and swallows the rebellious group of Korach and his followers.  It is a shocking moment.  Korach has challenged Moses and Aaron’s leadership and they are unable to speak on their own behalf.  God intervenes, the earth swallows the rebels, but afterwards Israel blames Moses and Aaron for what happened.  God intervenes again and a plague emerges in the people.  As thousands are dying, there is a surprising moment when Aaron does something he’s never done before.  Aaron takes his incense plate, used for offering atonement, and we are told he “stands between the living and the dead”.  

Aaron puts himself between God and the people and protects them.  We have never seen Aaron confront God before and we will not see him do it again.  It is a moment in time that he owns, defines, and leads.  We are left to wonder what he found within himself to draw on at precisely that moment. 

We have all read of people who do extraordinary things once in their lives.  The man who stood in front of an array of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989.  One man who stopped a row of tanks by simply standing his ground.

We know that Aaron, Moses’ brother, was the first High Priest, the man who stood by Moses’ side as a support and an ally.  We know he is the middle child of the three siblings: Miriam, Aaron, and Moses.  The Sages tell us that Aaron’s role within Israel was as the peacemaker among the people.  It is fitting that as the middle child, Aaron was the peacemaker.  But we are only shown one instance of exceptional courage and strength, and it is when he stands between the living and the dead.  

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that the day you are born is the day God decided the world couldn’t exist without you.  We are all unique with hidden mysteries that lay inside and infinite strengths.  For some of us, those moments might redefine how we answer a crisis.  For others, those moments might redefine us if some little person tries saying ‘Bubbie’ and ends up saying ‘Bubbly’

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