Friday, June 24, 2011

Entirely true but utterly irrelevant / Parshat Korach

Korach, as far as I can tell, is jealous and power hungry. Born into the tribe of Levi, Korach is not a member of the clan of Aaron and hence has no claim to the priesthood. He is second echelon authority seeking power. Korach gathers 250 minions around him – mostly from the tribe of Reuven, who, as descendants of Jacob’s firstborn son also feel disenfranchised – and stages a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. His fight song goes like this: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

Korach’s claim – “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” – is entirely true but utterly irrelevant. It’s no secret that the Torah considers Israel a holy people, even a nation of priests. Rashi points out that Korach is claiming that everyone who stood at Sinai enjoys the same status – an indisputable fact. That “fact,” however, says nothing about who is authorized to lead them. Korach’s claim that everyone is holy – to which even Moses and Aaron can say “amen” – is a red flag. It’s a distraction. It is a shrewd, deceptive, subversive tactic. While proclaiming a fact, it is at its core dishonest because it has nothing to do with the truth that God appointed Moses to lead Israel and he has served with distinction.

Last July, conservative political firebrand Andrew Brietbart released a selectively edited video clip from a speech delivered by USDA official Shirley Sherrod at a NAACAP Freedom Fund Banquet on March 27, 2010. In the speech, Sherrod told a story about having once – prior to her employment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – seen things through the lens of race. It is entirely true that Sherrod once privileged African American farmers over others. Sherrod herself said so. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, viewing the damning clip on an iPod, sought to end Sherrod’s employment at the USDA. His condemnation was quick.

Briebart’s carefully (and deceptively) edited clip – which quickly went viral, was a shrewd and malicious deception because it lacked context. Sherrod’s point in telling the story was that she had discovered – on her own – that racism in all its manifestations is morally wrong. The video clip, posted by Breitbart to the Internet without context or explication, caused the very media frenzy he was counting on. In this end, the truth came to light, but not before much damage was done by his “facts.”

Recently I read a blog entry by Jack Brennan posted earlier this month. I don’t know Jack Brennan. On his blog, Jack says he is the parent of grown men whom he adopted from the foster care system. He himself knows what it’s like to lose a parent and get another. How he lost his mother is the subject of the May 3, 2011 blog post that caught my eye. When Jack was 15, his parents went out to a party. His father was drunk when they left, and as Jack wryly notes, it’s unlikely he sobered up at the party. On the way home, his father crashed the car into a concrete abutment on the Long Island Expressway. His father was severely injured and his mother died. Some months later, Jack overheard his father explaining to a cousin that the party had been held at the new police precinct where he worked. He noted that his friend Norman had transferred him to this precinct. Had Norman not transferred him, he would not have been invited to the party. Therefore, he reasoned, the accident that killed Jack’s mother was Norman’s fault.

It is a fact that Norman transferred Jack’s father. It is a fact that had Norman not transferred Jack’s father, he and Jack’s mother would not have attended the party that evening. But these facts are utterly irrelevant to the truth that Jack’s father was driving drunk, and that is why his mother was killed in a one-car accident.

On the corporate level, Enron is the poster child for facts that obscure truth. Enron provided an ocean of facts – all accurate and all publicly disclosed – but so complex that it obscured the underlying fraud they were purposefully perpetrating.

Enron drenched us with facts to cover up its corruption. Jack’s father told facts to avoid the truth and to evade any responsibility for his actions. Just like Korach.

The Rabbis suggest that perhaps the source of Korach’s hubris and sense of entitlement comes from knowing that the prophet Samuel will be among his descendants (B’midbar Rabbah 18:15). Moses, after all, will have no known descendants. Perhaps Korach considers himself far worthier to lead Israel because of the line that will emerge from him. Without asking how Korach could possibly have known whom his descendants would be – the Rabbis play fast and loose with the timeline – we can certainly note that Korach uses these “facts” to undermine Moses and Aaron on utterly irrelevant grounds. Armed with facts, Korach purposefully diverts attention from the truth.

In our 24/7 media cycle, we are continually plied with facts. It’s often difficult to separate facts from truth. Bombarded with facts, we lose sight of the truth. It’s a major sorting activity.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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