Thursday, 18 Jun 2015

Written by Daniela Touati

A few days ago, in the library of Leo Baeck College, I came across a very unusual document, the Ha’aretz almanac of 1949/1950. Along with very interesting articles about foreign and domestic affairs, beautiful poems and stories, advertisements in tune with the ‘50s, this book contains many facts and figures. Israel was one year old and already home to precisely 553, 985 Jews already living there (the statistics started only in 1919).

In 1947 as in previous years, 41% of the Olim arrived from Russia and Poland, but in 1948 the trend changed and exactly the same proportion – 41% – originated in the Balkans (most of them from Rumania, where I was born) and the Russian/Polish group dropped to 36%.

In this post Second World War period, following the destruction of two thirds of the European Jewish population, it was essential for the new Israelis to raise the figures and reach a significant number of Jews who lived inside their new country. This, in order to confirm, if necessary, the absolute necessity for the creation of the Jewish state.

Discovering that document was quite moving especially when the same day I came across Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s speech in Herzliya, raising the problems which Israelis are confronted with nowadays.

This speech was acknowledged by Ha’aretz as the most “radical” and thought-provoking speech in years, an essential talk. The Israeli President was fulfilling his role as a leader who stands back, deals with disturbing issues and finally gives some precious advice. He was described by the journalist Asher Schechter, as the President of “the real Israel”: a country divided into 4 “factions”. The secular who are progressively declining and represent only 38% of the population, the religious Zionist 15%, the Haredi 25% and the Arab Israeli 25%, “there is no longer a clear majority group nor minority group”.

Stating this, he suggested 4 “pillars” considered as vital issues in order to grant a future to his country and avoid an implosion: “a sense of security for each sector, shared responsibility for Israeli society and the state, equity and equality, the creation of a shared Israeli character”.

Facts and figures are an eternal subject which rises to the forefront of our concerns. Counting is a distraction from anxiety and, more rarely, a means to be joyful. We count how many Jews live in England, how many belong to the Reform or Liberal movements or how many belong to one specific congregation compared to another one.

The anxiety has to do with us being a tiny minority of altogether 12 to 13 million people worldwide and most importantly, with the permanent feeling that we have to be ready to struggle for our survival.


Regardless how small the numbers are, both in the diaspora and in Israel, a typical characteristic of being Jewish is to praise diversity, or more precisely, controversy-machloket. That may result either in factions or tribalisation, or in a respectful and constructive coexistence of different groups who share different views.
Large parts of the book of Numbers deal with figures. According to Mary Douglas (in “The Legacy of Jacob’s sons”) the purpose here is a “doctrine of the unity of the sons of Israel” and a “warning not to secede”. It seems that from biblical times on, this was the biggest threat that endangered Israel, the people being counted over and over again in the book of Numbers.

Korach is the second sidra in the book of Numbers which deals with the risk of fracture (after Shelakh Lekha).

One can view this episode as a classical story of jealousy and ambition in a family. Instead of the familiar stories of sibling rivalry, this time it concerns two cousins Moses and Korach.

Korach is a man of influence, he engages with him 2 members of the Reubenite tribe, Dathan and Abiram and 250 princes, dignitaries, “people of renown” – anshei shem. It has nothing to do with a wild revolution which spreads from the bottom upwards.

Korach and “his band” seek to reclaim power and his argument is (Numbers 16:3): “you have gone too far! (literally: enough with you), for all the community are holy, all of them…” If we look at this argument both from a biblical and a post-modern perspective, we could sympathize with Korach.

Isn’t he paralleling the exact words of God in parashat Yitro 19:6 “and you will be a kingdom of Priests, a holy people”?

Isn’t Korach very much like our modern opinion makers, an influential man, probably very eloquent, who succeeded in influencing lots of “followers” and obtaining several hundreds of “likes”? He asks for more democracy in the ruling of the people, a horizontal leadership rather than a totally vertical one.

But even if the 12 tribes of Israel are divided into clans and families, there is no place for an alternative leadership. No room for factions. The message of one people with one God and one Law is as often stated as it is questioned.

The sentence is severe and collective. 14,700 people are swallowed by the earth or burnt: a very visual and chilling punishment. (Korach shares the same root – k r h – with the word ice.)

Why is the punishment so severe? According to Nehama Leibowitz’  commentary, Korach’s followers are opportunists, they don’t really share the same concerns, they are “animated by individual pride and ambition, united to overthrow Moses and Aaron and hoping to attain their individual desires.”

From Mishnah Avot 5:17 we can infer that this is a mahloket she lo leshem shamaim, it means that it is an “interested” dispute contrary, to a desirable mahloket le shem shammaïm, a debate with a higher purpose such as those between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammaï.

As Yehoshua Leibowitz explains in his commentary of this sidra, we are not a holy people; it is a “work in progress” that we are striving to achieve. It will probably last forever and all those who claim this as already existing, who also claim the “superiority” of the Jewish people, endanger our future and our possibility of living together.

Beyond politics, one of the essential lessons of this Sidra is to envision the long term purpose and the collective shared view rather than the personal one. In parashat Korach, as well as in modern-day Israel, maintaining the cohesion of diverse groups of people is still a major challenge.

Student rabbi Daniela Touati

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.