by Rabbi Matt Cutler,
Congregation Gates of Heaven
, Schenectady NY
Jewish history has stories of Jews acting less than nobly and has its fair share of stories of Jewish criminals. At the turn of the 20th century, when nearly a million Eastern European Jews came through Ellis Island in New York, there were Jews who gravitated toward illegal activities to make their livings. The names of many have become part of American folklore. But often their legend grows larger than life – their behaviors either are glorified or they are chastised. There needs to be a balance.
I learned this at the Bialystok synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The
plaques hang on the back wall of this historic synagogue – one name might stand out to an observant viewer: Benjamin Siegel. Even the infamous Bugsy Siegel gets remembered! The plaque, purchased by his family, is located right below his father’s who died a month or so prior to Bugsy’s murder. The plaque is a reminder that even though Bugsy Siegel name is associated with organized crime, he was someone’s son as well as a spouse and a father. Sure the history books will recall his notoriety as a primary force in building Las Vegas and his alleged criminal activities from prohibition, gambling, murder, etc. Yet – one should be very careful when vilifying someone’s activities. Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 9:2) wrote that all of Israel needs to perform teshuvah because all of us have lives that hang in the balance between good and evil. We are constantly challenging ourselves to choose good over evil. But the need for Yom Kippur is such that at times, we succumb to that yester harah – that evil inclination that will lead us astray and act in an inappropriate manner.
In his history of Jewish gangsters, Robert Rockaway entitled his book,
But-He Was Good To His Mother
. Many of the infamous Jewish criminals of the early 20th century were known for their philanthropy as well as their thug-like behavior. Years ago, I heard Professor Rockaway speak about a funeral for one of these men. Hundreds lined the streets around a synagogue to remember a Jewish mobster who met a violent death. He was eulogized for his community work with the poor and the needy, with only a passing reference to his criminal activities. A few years later, there was an article in the local paper about the fate of his family. They fell on some very hard financial times. The columnist made a reference to this week’s Torah portion, referencing a Midrash that when Korah rebelled, he was swallowed up along with all his wealth; leaving nothing for his heirs. The inference was clear – the gangster was like Korah!
Is it fair to compare Korah to alleged criminals? Perhaps – he is known as one who rebelled against Moses and Aaron; along with Korah, there was Dathan, Abiram, On and 250 of their followers. Their fate was clear: when he refuses to step down from his challenge, God causes the ground to open up and they fall in. As for the fate of the most infamous of the 20th century Jewish gangsters, most of them meet an untimely death. The exception to that was Bugsy Siegel’s partner, Meyer Lansky, who retired to Florida and died of natural causes in 1983.
On the surface, Korah may not appear to be a ruthless thug, but don’t get fooled – his behavior is just as cunning and calculated. A simple reading of the text described Korah’s protests as a challenge to the appointment of Aaron and his family as priests; he believed that Moses unjustly singled out his own brother for privileges that belonged to all of the Levites including Korah himself. Commentators believed that Korah went too far as to mock Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community is holy, all of them and God is in their midst why then do you raise yourself above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). They add that his intent was clearly to undermine Moses’ authority and gain the priesthood for himself.
The Midrashists portrayed Korah as a greedy person. They say that he was extraordinarily wealthy; having discovered one of the treasures which Joseph had hidden in Egypt (Sanhedrian 110a, Peschahim 119a). It was so much that it was carried through the wilderness on 300 mules. The suggestion is that Korah’s rebellion was rooted in greed for both money and power. The Psalmist echoes such sentiment: “there was envy of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy ones of God. The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan [Korah’s co-conspirator] … A fire place among their party and the flame consumed the wicked” (Psalms 106:16-18).
Greed and power often causes human spirit to succumb to unrighteous behavior. Korah’s rebellion appears to be a well-crafted assault on Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Nachmanides points out that “Korah found the opportune moment to pick his quarrel… He assumed that the people will side with him because of their frustration and discomfort.” According to another midrash, Korah seized the opportunity after the spies came back with their negative reports. He went from tent to tent fomenting unrest: “I am not Moses and Aaron, who want to attain fame and power for themselves. I want all of us to enjoy life.” (Numbers Rabbah 18:10)
Philosopher Martin Buber had a more sympathetic understanding of Korah. He suggests that “both Moses and Korah desired the people to be… the holy people. But for Moses, this was the goal. In order to reach it, generation after generation had to choose again and again… between the ways of God and the wrong paths of their own hearts; between life and death… For Korah, the people… were already holy… so why should there be further need for choice? Their dispute was between two approaches to faith and to life.” (
A Torah Commentary For Our Times
, by Harvey Fields;
Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant
, by Martin Buber).
Korah’s tale is about choices one can make in his/her life. Remember that line in Torah that God gives us a choice and we are supposed to choose life so that we and our descendants can live? (Numbers 30:4). Korah’s story is essential for us to hold on to as a reminder of the complexity of that choice. Just like those Jewish gangsters who made their decisions on how to live, Korah made his. Each of us should learn from these historical figures and choose an ethical path to live.
Remember – history is gift: we look back and learn so that we can go forward and live.