I wonder how Korah’s descendants describe this week’s events described in the synagogue’s weekly Torah reading. Would it be akin to the accolades we heap on Bar Kochba who led a failed a rebellion against Rome in the second century? To this day we sing of his courage when we recall Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom on our holiest of days, Yom Kippur. Akiva was one of Bar Kochba’s greatest supporters.
Moses ruthlessly quashed Korah’s rebellion (revolution?). He killed Korah and 250 of his followers. Would my hero Moses be called a murderer by Korah’s descendants?
“Blasphemy!” one might say.
Years ago, I traveled to Israel on a UJA mission. It was during the second intifada and we were there to show our support and express our solidarity. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated five years earlier and my companions and I were deeply traumatized by his murder and the increasingly deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks.
We mourned the soldier turned prime minister turned peace maker. Rabin seemed the perfect hero. He was reluctant to make peace, but did so when times required. He was reluctant to become prime minister, but did so when his country asked. He was reluctant to make war, but did so when his nation’s survival was at stake. I admired his courage and his willingness to make decisions that appeared in Israel’s best interest. His private hesitations never deterred his public commitments. But, there was one among our fellow travelers who did not view Rabin in such heroic terms.
He too had fought in the War of Independence. He interrupted my praise and accolades with the words, “I celebrate Rabin’s death. His killing served justice.” It was in June of 1948 that this man’s fellow Irgun fighters decided to ignore the cease fire to which Ben Gurion agreed. On the Altalena ship were armaments that Menachem Begin and his fighters wished to smuggle into the young state. Ben Gurion ordered the ship stopped at all costs.
Yitzhak Rabin was the Palmach commander charged with carrying out this order. The Altalena was fired upon. Sixteen were killed. “I will never forgive Rabin for killing my friends. He was a murderer!” my new found acquaintance shouted. Even though the Altalena affair is shrouded in mystery and continues to be vociferously debated, I found my companion’s words shocking. His words were blasphemy in my ears. I could not bear to listen to his venom.
I still struggle to understand his anger.
Today we celebrate July 4th and our nation’s independence. Lest we forget, our celebrated revolution was deemed a rebellion by others. And, for some of my compatriots, the revolution did not include them. We know that for the signers of our Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal” did not include African Americans or women.
Many of our founders were, in fact, slave owners. And while I find it troubling that Colin Kaepernick would protest a Betsy Ross flag emblazoned on a Nike sneaker because this iconic image has been co-opted by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, I am trying to understand his anger. I am struggling to comprehend his outrage.
On this day, most especially, I prefer the icon. And yet I must recognize, where I see liberation, others see oppression.
History is not comprised of the tidy stories we prefer to tell. Its ugliness cannot be erased. Its pitfalls must be confronted. This is why it is so extraordinarily absurd that a San Francisco school would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to erase a mural that depicts George Washington as both a general and a slave owner.
We only want the myth. On this July 4th we only want the heroes’ stories.
We long to tell only Moses’ version of events. On this day, however, I wish to ask, should we include what the rebels, and outcasts, might have offered? Does Korah’s story belong alongside our vaunted hero’s?
Our nation’s founders were both revolutionaries and racists. They were political geniuses and misogynists. It is of course jarring to say such things, but history is not only made from legend. Thomas Jefferson, for example, owned slaves. He fathered six children with his slave, Sally Hemings. To suggest such a relationship was consensual strains credulity.
Still, I only want the myth. Why? Because I am the beneficiary of much of our nation’s freedoms. I only wish to remember Thomas Jefferson, the author of the freedoms I now enjoy.
And yet where I see liberation, others see oppression. I struggle to understand their anger.
Perhaps the spirit of July 4th and the independence we now celebrate is to challenge these devotionals. I do not think the path forward is discovered by erasing such images. It is instead discovered by confronting even their most sordid history. It may appear blasphemous to question the sacred, but perhaps it may provide some measure of unity to our fractured nation.
Sacrilege may in fact be at the root of how new nations are formed and revolutionary ideas blossom. I call my heroes Moses.
Others might recall the name Korah with admiration.
On this July 4th, I wish to hear both voices.
And so, I am straining to hear the anger of my contemporaries. I am trying to listen to the outrage of my compatriots.
On this July 4th, I wish to embrace the outrage and anger as well as the celebration and myth.
Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications including Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel. He also blogs at rabbimoskowitz.com