Korach: reading the Bad Boys of the Exodus can help with the Bad Boys of Brexit

Reading Bible reminds us again and again that people are the same, whatever age they live in, and that politics is also essentially unchanged over the centuries. Some people have principles, others appear to have only causes, and one repeatedly seen cause is sadly that of increasing their own power and status.

Yes, they will dress it up – in a tub-thumping speech to the leader they may say “you are taking too much on yourself, all the people are holy” or they may use the language of the demagogue explicitly reminding others that only they are following “the will of the people” and everyone else is betraying them. Often the speaker is privileged and wealthy, yet somehow acts as if they are one of the less advantaged, and speak against some notionally distant and uncaring governing elite.

So Korach, cousin of Aaron and Moses, was a member of the tribe of Levi, singled out for special status. The midrash tells us that he was very wealthy (indeed the phrase “as rich as Korach” in Hebrew equates with the modern slang “filthy rich” and Bemidbar Rabba 18:15 tells us that Korach was the comptroller in Pharaoh’s palace and was in charge of the keys of his treasuries, and later on is clear that he was not the most disinterested or honest supervisor, but took many of the riches for himself (Bemidbar Rabba 22:7)   And yet his language implies that he is simply the spokesperson for the downtrodden and ignored, as he whips up a populist movement to his own agenda.

There can be no doubt that Korach is one of the “Bad Boys of the Exodus”. And of course he gets his comeuppance, as the duel of the firepans of incense leads the rebels to their unnatural deaths while Aaron and his family are confirmed in the priesthood and the copper from the firepans is to be used to plate the altar to remind everyone that the priesthood is of the family of Aaron (See Numbers 17)

God, having taken out the leadership of the rebellion, is keen to finish the job, sending a plague upon the whole community, and Aaron and Moses have to rush to help save them from the consequences of this rebellion.

Sometimes bible has a way of speaking to the current moment in an eerie and extraordinary way. Here in the UK we have our demagogues, almost to a man wealthy and privileged and with a deep urge to seize power. The leadership of the Brexit project – the “Bad Boys of Brexit” are generally personally wealthy, have a background of privilege in terms of education and family connections, and have manipulated people who have been ignored or suppressed into somehow believing that they are just like them. The newspapers they write for or control drip poisonous xenophobic tropes, see the European Union as other, indeed as enemy. They deliberately whip up the ideas of treason, seeing enemies and betrayal everywhere. For years stories about “the other” have published which show the poor patriotic English person being cheated, lied to, ignored in favour of foreigners.  Forget the ideology of working for European peace, if you read these papers you would believe that laws are imposed on us by foreigners who don’t consult, don’t expect us to have a voice, don’t care about us, only about our money which they want from us. These years have done their work, the mob are roused, with threats of violence against anyone with a different narrative, from Members of Parliament down. And real violence against anyone perceived as “other”. For me the nadir was the headline “enemies of the people” in the Daily Mail (4.11.17), with photos of three High Court Judges who “defied {the} Brexit voters” and who could trigger a constitutional crisis. What had the Judges done? They had ruled that Parliament must be consulted before the Government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would start the UK’s formal process of EU withdrawal.

In the story of Korach, the rebels are spectacularly –and unnaturally – dealt with, going down into the bowels of the earth which then closed over them. But the continued effect of their poison and lies meant that God was prepared to continue cleansing the people – by plague. It took the desperate interventions of Moses and Aaron to change that terrible outcome, and to get the people once more back on track to achieve their goal, of entry into the Promised Land.  We learn from this that the power of the rabble rouser and demogague continues long after they have stopped. It takes courage and thoughtful intervention, facing the problem and the poison and combatting it with a different narrative, to slowly root out the worst of it.

But the human desire for grabbing power and for seeing others as foreign or other does not go away. It must be recognised and it must be contained, for it will never leave us. There will always be those who rise up in every generation to pervert justice and kindness for their own benefit and we need to be aware of this and on our guard, fighting and fighting for the values of understanding our shared humanity, of having compassion for the other  rather than fear or hatred.  It is interesting to see that some psalms are written by the bnei Korach – the sons or descendants of Korach. Korach does not go away, but becomes part of the community – and we have to be aware that the tropes of Korach’s rebellion are still entwined within our groups.

How our current situation, of growing populist movements and politicians will end, we don’t yet know.  We see that the language of snide demagoguery continues, we see that wealth has been acquired through odd and secretive ways from outside the community (just as Korach had appropriated his wealth immorally from Egyptian stores). We see parties or individuals gaining power by whipping up xenophobia and hatred while implying that they are on the side of the poor and dispossessed.  No God is going to come and cause the earth to open – we are on our own with this one. But we should take heart from the biblical text. Ultimately Korach loses, the people are back on track and the violence and plague abates. It takes work and pain and fear and tears. But ultimately Korach will lose again.

 

 

Vayechi: Chesed ve’Emet, Acknowledging truth allows us to offer our compassion fully.

וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִׂים־נָ֥א יָֽדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם:

And the days of Israel came close to death and he called to his son, to Joseph, and he said to him “If pray I found favour in your eyes, pray put your hand under my thigh, and treat with me with Chesed and Emet; do not, I pray, bury me in Egypt” (Exodus 47:29)

Chesed and Emet – two of the thirteen middot, the attributes of God explained by God to Moses, after the incident of the Golden calf, and which continue to be used liturgically in the same way that Moses used them then– to ask for divine mercy when there is no legal basis or reason for it.

Essentially, used as the centre of the selichot prayers of the Days of Awe, these words, taken from Exodus 34 (vv6-7) remind God of our individual and group relationship with the divine, and that sometimes it is only the mercy of God that allows that relationship to continue. They set the scene for teshuvah, for repentance or rather for a return to God after we have strayed.

Of the thirteen middot derived from this text, all but one refer to mercy, kindness, favour or forgiveness –the second of our pair here in Vayechi, when Joseph asks Jacob, Ve’asiti imadi Chesed ve’Emet.

The word Emet means truth or faithfulness. Its presence in the request is a problem for classical commentators on this text, and is beautifully glossed by Rashi who quotes the midrash (Gen. Rabbah 96:5) which uses the context of the proper burial of the dead by understanding Jacob to be saying to his son “The chesed/loving-kindness that is done for the dead is here a true loving-kindness, entirely altruistic, since one cannot expect payment or reward of any kind from the dead for caring for them”. And from this reading grows the mitzvah of Chesed SHEL Emet – truthful kindness or perfect kindness, the entirely altruistic mitzvah of helping those who are powerless and completely vulnerable and who will never be able to recompense or return the favour – the unburied dead.

It is a beautiful platform on which to stand this most selfless and necessary of activities, yet I find myself not entirely satisfied either with the midrashic gloss of Rashi or with the usual interpretation that “chesed ve’emet” in this context is simply an idiomatic phrasing of doing a favour or a good deed. It seems to me that the two words mean very different things, and placing them together (as happens fairly often in the bible) creates a new thing, a tension between loving kindness and truth/faithfulness with which we must engage.

As well as being in the verses which give us the attributes of God, the combination of words comes to describe God and God’s work, for example in psalms such as

“All the ways of God are Chesed and Emet to those who keep his covenant and his testimony” (25:10)  כָּל־אָרְח֣וֹת יְ֭הֹוָה חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֑ת לְנֹצְרֵ֥י בְ֝רִית֗וֹ וְעֵדֹתָֽיו:

Or “Righteousness and truth are the foundation of Your throne, Chesed and Emet go out from before You”        (89:15)    צֶ֣דֶק וּ֭מִשְׁפָּט מְכ֣וֹן כִּסְאֶ֑ךָ חֶ֥סֶד וֶ֝אֱמֶ֗ת יְֽקַדְּמ֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ

Chesed and Emet come together in God, and are a fundamental part of the Covenant relationship we have with God – this is clear from the texts. So it is a very easy stretch when reading those same texts to understand that we expect Chesed/loving-kindness from God EVEN THOUGH the truth of our being is not always deserving – hence the use of the middot in the selichot prayers of pardon throughout the Days of Awe.

But the real lesson in the deathbed conversation between Jacob and Joseph is not that we expect unconditional love and forgiveness from God, but rather that we have to mediate the one with the other for ourselves, that however we might perceive the truth of our relationship with someone else, when the chips are down, then Chesed also has to be in the equation. Indeed sometimes compassion has to override the truth of someone’s behaviour.

What Jacob is asking of Joseph is not couched in the patriarchal power language – “you are my son and must follow my wishes”. It is phrased very much as a favour – “if I have found favour in your sight….” But then he adds to the request: “deal with me with both Emet and Chesed”.

It may be that Jacob know that he cannot order this son of his who has become so powerful in Egypt, and who may have his own political reasons to decide on the funeral planning for his father. It may be that Jacob knows that he may not even be successful when he appeals to Joseph’s magnanimity with his request formed in such conciliatory words as the formulaic “if I have found favour in your sight”.  He does this but then he goes on to nuance his words with the appeal to both Chesed and Emet. It seems to me that Jacob is asking of his son something quite new in human interaction at this point – he is acknowledging that the Emet, the truth of their relationship is that has been strained for many years, that he has not parented Joseph well, that he has little claim on his son for his request, and yet he is asking for the compassion of Chesed. He is saying to his son –“ I know who I am to you, and you know that I know this, but my request is so important to me that I am asking you to see past this truth we both acknowledge and help me.”

The honesty with which Jacob is speaking here to his son is the Emet he is asking for from his son. He does not want their story to be airbrushed or hidden from their interaction, but to be part of the decision making process that Joseph will go through. He does not want the failures in their relationship to be buried and treated as if they never existed. With the words “ve’emet” he is telling his son that the unfinished business of their relationship was real, that the pain felt by Joseph was real too, and he is asking Joseph to honour his wishes despite this pain, through the power of his compassion for his father. Essentially with the combination of Chesed ve Emet Jacob asks of his son not only great compassion, but great compassion in the light of the knowledge of the painful truth.

The lesson is well taught. Joseph honour his father’s wishes and the sibling rivalry ends here with the death of Jacob. The pain is recorded, and it does not go away or be hidden from view but neither does it sprawl out into the next generation. Once faced with integrity and acknowledged by the person who is perceived to have caused the pain, it can be overcome and compassion allowed to take its place. Psalm 89 tells us that the world is built with Chesed (v3) – it is the tool of creation, a new possibility.

כִּֽי־אָמַ֗רְתִּי ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה

And Jacob is asking for this too – once the truth is acknowledged a new possibility emerges and compassion has its place. The importance of the mitzvah of Chesed shel Emet, of the altruistic treatment of the dead who cannot repay us for what we do for them is great. But the importance of treating others with Chesed ve’emet is equally great, for only then do we truly let go of what is holding us back from our potential and our future.

Mikketz: the end of the sibling hatred is in sight – maybe

When Joseph meets his brothers again everything is different. He is no longer an arrogant and specially adored child taken up with visions of his own importance much to the annoyance of his older brothers. Now he truly is an important man, second only to the Pharaoh. He is no longer the dreamer – now he is the interpreter of dreams. But one thing seems to remain the same – the relationship between him and his brothers is strained and unhappy.

He recognises his brothers as soon as they come to Egypt to buy food, but he doesn’t reveal himself to them. Instead he behaves in a cruel and unusual way, acting like a stranger to them, and speaking harshly to them, asking, “Where do you come from”.  He must know that they are anxious and unsettled in a strange land where they have come to buy food because of famine at home.  He must know too that their father has suffered greatly in his absence and will be suffering until the rest of his sons are home. He must have known that imprisoning Shimon would cause terrible pain to his family. And that demanding for Benjamin to come to Egypt – and then keeping him – would potentially destroy his father. He must have known, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to affect him.

Why does Joseph behave in this way? Has the passage of time and the huge respect for him in Egypt not changed him? Has he not matured and let go of some of his justifiable anger towards his brothers? Does he actually believe what he will later tell his brothers, that God has arranged for him to be in Egypt and thus ensure the survival of his family?  Is he deliberately humiliating and testing his brothers or is something else going on?

The Berdichever Rebbe Levi Yitzhak suggested that Joseph was actually acting in defence of his brother’s feelings – knowing that it would be a terrible humiliation for his brothers were they to learn that the man towards whom they were making obeisance and bowing with their faces to the ground was their young brother who had once dreamed that they would do precisely this.  Instead of revelling in their defeat and in the reversal of their positions, Joseph chose to keep quiet and appeared to be a stranger so as not to shame them.

While this is an ingenious way of keeping the character of Joseph unblemished and righteous, it is I think a stretch too far for us. But there must be some reason why Joseph keeps his silence, and then goes on to test his siblings, and test them again.  

Assuming that Levi Yitzhak was right, and Joseph was acting from compassion rather than vengeance, it may indeed be that he was protecting his brothers from knowing who was standing before them.  Before they could have any kind of true and credible reconciliation, the brothers would have to understand what they had done all those years ago to Joseph and to repent – even if they thought they could no longer ask forgiveness of him. Had they known that while they were in the presence of this powerful Egyptian, that they were actually standing in the presence of Joseph, any move towards Joseph, any plea for forgiveness would seem to be insincere and made out of fear or a need for the food he could supply. 

Before Joseph could let go of his own anger and pain, he needed to hear that his brothers were repentant of their behaviour towards him and that they understood that their current predicament was some recompense.  His strange behaviour towards them does not have to have been vengeance, but part of the process that could lead them all to forgiveness and reconciliation. Once he could see that the brothers truly atoned for their behaviour, then he too was able to take the next step towards conciliation with them. By seeming to be harsh he was in fact allowing for an opportunity for real understanding and credibility.

We can’t know what was really in his mind, why he had not contacted his family when he became powerful in Egypt, why he dealt with his brothers in the way he did; – but we can see that the process of reconciliation is not easy nor does it require us to ignore the real pain we feel when we have been wronged or when we ourselves have wronged others.