What’s My Motivation? Parshat Korach


A friend posted that her adorable toddler has discovered the magic and wonder of the word, “no.” Apparently, regardless of the question, the answer is always, “no,” spoken loudly, with hands on hips and a defiant twinkle in the eyes. Such is the power of finally having language with which to dissent.

We all go through this stage as we grow. For some of us, it lasts longer than for most, and for others, it never really passes. We all know contrarians who will insist that the sky is not blue because they enjoy the act of arguing too much to acquiesce, even when common sense says otherwise.

As Jews, we understand this compulsion to disagree and to question as a way to advocate for change. As I wrote in my previous Parsha, much of our motivation is for betterment, and that is apparent in our Holy Books.

When we read Parshat Korach in the book of Numbers, we learn that Moses’ first cousin, Korach, is leading a rebellion. He petitions to remove the seemingly arbitrary hierarchy of Moses as leader and Aaron as High Priest, and he gives a superficially reasonable argument: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (16:3).

Moses does not question Korach’s right to argue about this. In fact, Moses begins making arrangements to come to a reasonable resolution. Then comes the kicker: Two of Korach’s followers, Dathan and Abiram, spit in the face of Moses’ efforts at diplomacy and say, “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” (16:13).

Moses is stunned that, yet again, a false memory emerges, this fake news, of how wonderful life was in Egypt. He is so distressed by this bald-faced lie that his diplomacy departs and he ends up, with G-d’s help, dispatching the rebels to an abrupt and sandy death.

The Sages make clear that arguing was not the crime here. For them, it is the motivation behind the argument that determines its righteousness, or lack thereof. “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will have enduring value, but every dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Mishnah Avot 5: 21).

In our daily interactions via email, social media, and family conversations, Korach can be a good “check engine” light. What’s going on under the hood? Are we gossiping? Are we tired, sad, lonely, hungry? It’s ok to disagree, as long as our motivations are for good. As the poet Rumi wrote, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

It’s tiring to always have to be the grownup; sometimes our inner toddler comes out. Our culture today is full of off-the-cuff remarks, comments that sting, and trolls who want a laugh. But our problems are not going to be solved by juvenile responses. It will be kindness combined with understanding, and a heart full of well-meaning, that will bring us peace in the tumultuous days to come.

Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

Kvetching and 20/20 Hindsight: Parshat Beha’alotecha


In the opening scene of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s highly-strung character Alvy Singer jokes about two elderly Jews having dinner at a resort. One turns to the other and says, “Boy, the food here is really terrible.” The other answers, “And the portions are so small!”

We Jews have a reputation for kvetching, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha.

The Israelites have kvetched in the desert before. Following the Exodus, they cried, “You have brought us out here into this desert to make us all die from hunger.” (Exodus 16:3). Moses advocated for his people and G-d sent manna.

This time, the kvetching is different. It happens, not because the people are hungry, but because they are bored. “…the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat?”’ (11:4)

As the story progresses, G-d is unimpressed. G-d promises to provide meat until it is, literally, coming out of their noses (11:20). With the meat “still between their teeth,” many Israelites are struck by a plague and the most egregious offenders are killed.

It’s not such a mystery where the chutzpah to complain comes from. Our people have a proud history of creating systems designed to work better than before. The entire Talmud is filled with arguments around how to make Judaism and the world better.

As Rabbi Jonathan Saks says, “Judaism is a faith for those who seek to change the world… (it)is a protest against the world that is in the name of the world that ought to be…to make a difference, to change lives for the better, to heal some of the scars of our fractured world.”

The most baffling part of the parsha is not the complaining, but that, as justification for wanting to have a more diverse diet, the Hebrews hark back to when they were slaves: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge…” (11:5). Are the Israelites really saying that they would trade their freedom for fish?

We have to remember that for centuries, these people were slaves. Being a slave is a little like being a child: You don’t have much power but the basics are provided for you. In contrast, being a free adult is accompanied by great responsibility. It can be scary and exhausting. As adults we often yearn for the simplicity of childhood. We refer to years past as the “good old days.” We forget that childhood is chock full of its own difficulties, anxiety and fears.

All the more so when we speak of society. It may seem that 50 years ago, things were better. We remember a simpler, sweeter, more wholesome time. We forget it was also a time of bitter turmoil: Wars, racism, crime, sexism. For some, just being who they were was a criminal offence. Our memories are precious but sometimes they fool us and paint the past with sentimentality.

In our world today, there are some systems that are still not working and we struggle to come to terms with that. It is tempting to stay in innocence, to live, as they say, with the devil you know. But that is not a full life. A life stuck in nostalgia is stunted, cowardly, and ultimately will rot. The solution is not just to yearn for times past, but to face forward with a brave heart; to strive for justice, have faith, and continue our difficult journey toward the Promised Land.

Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

D’var Shavuot 2020, ‘Wither Thou Goest’


Wither Thou goest – I will go.
Wither Thou lodgest – I will lodge.
Thy people shall be my people.
Wither Thou goest – I will go.

The pilgrimage festival of Shavuot is upon us. Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. We celebrate by listening to the liturgical poem, the Akdamut, eating dairy products (reminding us that studying Torah is as sweet on our tongue as milk and honey), and engaging in all-night Bible study. We also read the Book of Ruth.

My first exposure to the above passage was via Leonard Cohen’s beautiful rendition. At that time, I thought it was a romantic love song. I’ve quoted it to my husband and, if it registered at all that the words were from our tradition, I assumed they were from the Song of Songs. 

But, no. These are the words that Ruth speaks to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth. The story begins in the land of Moab, a notorious enemy of Israel, where Naomi’s family has settled due to famine.  Naomi’s husband passes away, as do her two sons, and they leave behind two Moabite daughters-in-law. Despite Naomi’s insistence that the girls return to their families, one of them, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi and follows her back to Israel. (Ruth 1:16-17)

It is surprising that Ruth is so attached to her mother-in-law. In traditional Jewish humour, mothers-in-law don’t always fare well – we all know the jokes. But Ruth remains loyal to her mother-in-law and refuses to leave her.

Earlier in the Book of Ruth, we come across the term chesed. This word does not have a direct translation into English. It is sometimes spoken of as mercy or pity, but what it really means is loving kindness. 

The loving kindness between Ruth and Naomi is worth mentioning here because, in these times, it is hard to imagine two people from such different backgrounds intersecting this affectionately. 

For most of us, our internal radar is so perfectly tuned to the way we see the world that other perspectives barely register. Technology allows us to limit our intellectual and emotional intake to sources that align with our point of view.  We express ourselves into echo chambers disguised as social media and hear only what we already suspect is true.

A dissenting perspective is not only unwelcome but we worry it’s wrong and stupid, even hateful or dangerous. It sometimes feels like our very survival depends on holding tight to our world view. This does us a disservice – seeing the world through a lens of fear limits our knowledge and, by extension, our opportunities for growth.

By all evidence, Ruth and Naomi should have been enemies. Instead, these two women banded together, created a family, and loved and learned from one another. Ruth, with Naomi’s support, became the great-grandmother of King David, who ushered in one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in biblical history.

Maybe we have something to learn from these two women who rose out of tragic circumstances, made a choice to trust one another, and left a legacy of kindness. On this strange and difficult Shavuot, when Yizkor is online and we eat our cheesecake in isolation, perhaps we can open our minds and souls to a new way of being and allow thoughts of chesed not just into our hearts but into our deeds.

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a rabbinical student at Jewish Studies Learning Institute.

BULKA: Rabbinic Reflections for the Record


For the Record, mazal tov on the launch of The Canadian Jewish Record!

You begin The CJR as we start a new book of the Torah, B’Midbar, often referred to as the Book of Numbers, even though the word B’Midbar means “in the desert.”

The desert is where Israel received the Torah, at Mt. Sinai. This reading, the first portion in the “Book of the Desert,” precedes Shavuot, when we recall the revelation on Mt. Sinai.

In the lead-up to Shavuot, we would expect a reading that is full of inspiring exhortations, a sampling of the ethical and moral obligations that comprise the Torah.

Instead, we get numbers – a census report of the population of each tribe. What are we to make of this?

There is an interesting nuance to the census worth contemplating. According to the Torah, the counting was via mispar shemot – “by the number of the names” (Numbers, 1:2). What exactly does that mean?

The sages Ralbag and Malbim explain that everyone who entered the census gave their name and wrote it down, and afterward the names were counted. The census did not reduce the people to numbers. Everyone came to be counted, and came with a name, with an identity.

Everybody was a somebody. Coming as this does within the immediate proximity of Shavuot lends a powerful impact to this census. This most important message in advance of revelation is that the community is much more than numbers, that everyone is important, that everyone counts.

The ethical principles, the moral directives, derive from this critical idea. Once this essential idea is entrenched in our minds, the rest follows with potent logic. Absent this essential notion and all the regulations fall into a sea of obscurity.

The names were written, and everyone who gave their name also gave a half-shekel. To be counted, one must be a giver, however minimally. Everyone takes from the community in some way. That is what community is designed to provide – something for everyone, materially or spiritually.

But everyone must perforce be a giver, a contributor. That is the best way a community can thrive.

In different ways, these two ideas have come into blunt reality as we wrestle with COVID-19. On one hand, the avalanche of deaths threatens to dull our sensitivities, to see this as merely numbers.

But each death is a true human tragedy. We cannot let this happen.

When we are free of this dreaded virus, we should expect an explosion of bottled-up grief, and a strong desire by many families to memorialize their dearly departed who were not properly mourned. If called upon, we must respond with sensitivity and caring, however emotionally draining it will be.

On the other hand, this tragic time has been a true community time, when our actions have made us all givers. Our staying at home, our physical distancing, normally innocuous actions, became lifesaving actions for the entire community.

It is an odd confluence of actions and emotions. When the pandemic leaves us, our caring action of staying away will hopefully give way to the caring action of embracing those who will need our support as they confront the losses they incurred.

I can think of no better way to prepare for revelation and of affirming the sanctity of God’s word than by thinking of ways we can and will help God’s sacred creations, who need us now and in the coming months.

Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and President/CEO of Kind Canada Genereux.