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Flags and Rebellion

Sermon on Korach 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

Yesterday was the 4th of July, which makes this Independence Day Shabbat, I suppose. This is a good Shabbat, Korach, for that celebratory experience, which I’ll explain in a little while.

Now growing up as a very patriotic American Jew, I always liked the 4th of July, the cookouts, ballgames and fireworks especially, and we used to hang up a large American flag in front of our house early in the morning on the 4th when I was little. I think we stopped doing that sometime during the Vietnam War.

You know, when I was little nearly everyone on our block hung up an American flag on the 4th of July, and sometimes on June 14th for Flag Day and on Memorial Day as well. And then some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s that stopped happening in our middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. I think it was the net effect of a general disenchantment with inherited, reflexive patriotism. It seems likely that it was a response of some kind to the race riots of the 60s—we lived pretty close to where the Watts Riots happened, and could see the smoke rising from the fires from our front porch. It might have been the collective impact of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. It certainly was effected by the Vietnam War and the protests against it, and then finally the whole saga of Watergate. Putting up a flag on the 4th of July just didn’t feel the same way that it had to many people.

I don’t remember any discussion about it, to be honest; I was just a kid, but we talked about things in my family, we were Jewish. But we didn’t talk about that. We just, well, didn’t put up the flag one year and never started doing it again.

It might be coincidental, but Paul Simon’s song, American Tune, written in 1972, around the time we quit putting up the flag on the 4th, captured the sense of disillusionment and discouragement that were very much in the air during the 1970s:

“I don't know a soul who's not been battered I don't have a friend who feels at ease I don't know a dream that's not been shattered or driven to its knees But it's all right, it's all right We've lived so well so long Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on I wonder what’s gone wrong I can't help but wonder what’s gone wrong.”

But that wasn’t the only sensibility in that song, or in the diluted patriotism of that period. Paul Simon continues the song with a vision of his own soul liberated from his body in a dream, as in death, and continues:

I dreamed I was flying High up above my eyes could clearly see The Statue of Liberty Sailing away to sea And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower We come on the ship that sailed the moon We come in the age's most uncertain hour singing an American tune

All of which made me think about the place of Jews in American history and American experience. Of course most of us, like Paul Simon’s own Jewish ancestors, came sailing past that same Statue of Liberty on our way into the United States through Ellis Island. That same statue has engraved upon it a poem written by Sephardic Jewish American author Emma Lazarus: Give me your tired, your poor… A touching and powerful reminder that we have been the grateful recipients of the hospitality of this land, this nation built out of immigrants and refugees and the wretched refuse of every teeming shore on the planet.

But we Jews started our American journey long before the Statue of Liberty was built or erected. We have a deep and positive involvement from the earliest stages of American history, from colonial times to the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States. In a way, this seems like a more important subject to reflect on now than it has been for some time.

We Jews have long viewed America as a unique nation of opportunity that guaranteed religious freedom from its’ founding, and we have flourished here in the United States as much as we ever have in any nation during our very long history as a people. After suffering religious persecution at the hands of governments all around the world for literally thousands of years, it has been our privilege to enjoy true freedom here in the United States. We have been blessed by the ability to create thriving, vibrant American Jewish life from colonial times to today. America has truly been a golden land of acceptance and opportunity for Jews in so many ways for a very long time, and it remains so today during our Golden Age of Jews in America, in which so much is available to us.

There have been Jews in America since colonial times, and we have always been active participants in the creation of the institutions that make this country what it is. At the time of the American revolution, that is 1776-1783, there were very few Jews living in what became the United States. Out of a total population of perhaps 2.5 million people in 1776, there were 1500 Jews sprinkled around the 13 colonies. There were active synagogues in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Newport, Rhode Island, Charleston, South Carolina and elsewhere, and about 150 Jews served in the American Army, ten percent of the total Jewish population and about 20% of the men. That is higher than the proportion of non-Jews serving in Washington’s armies.

The first Jew ever elected to public office in America, Francis Salvador, was also one of the first patriots to die in battle for the Revolutionary Armies. He was a South Carolina representative, killed August 1, 1776 fighting the Cherokees, allies of the British. A number of other Jews served in the patriotic cause and achieved prominence fighting the British, including Mordechai Sheftall, David Franks, and Uriah P. Levy, who later became the first Jewish Commodore in the US Navy and the savior of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home and estate. Famously, Haym Salomon helped finance the colonial cause and patriot army during the darkest days of the war, and personally loaned most of his funds to impecunious Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Jews have been deeply involved in the development and flourishing of America from its first days, and were actively involved as dedicated patriots throughout its formative period and through every development and crisis in US history. During every major military conflict Jews volunteered in higher numbers than proportional to defend our country. This has been true of us whether we were born here, or moved here and adopted America and were accepted by her.

Without going more deeply into American Jewish history, the facts are that Jews have been part and parcel of the fabric of American life throughout our nation’s 243 years of existence. We have and remain deeply patriotic Americans in the best sense of that word, seeking always to see our nation live to its highest standards guaranteeing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to its citizens, seeking to light the lamp of justice and freedom of conscience and expression for our own people and the entire world. Jews are proud to be an integral part of this compassionate nation that welcomes all who come seeking opportunity, who embrace the values that have made our country a magnet for the bright, enterprising and capable people of this entire world. We relate to American exceptionalism, of being a nation founded on a new continent without the trappings of monarchy or aristocracy, a theoretically class-free society based on accomplishment, talent and effort.

And perhaps we Jews feel American because America was founded by people who challenged the status quo, upset the applecart, and sought to remake the world. And there is something very Jewish about that.

In reading the Torah portion of Korach on 4th of July weekend you could be forgiven if you saw it as the kind or rebellion that presaged the one led by our Founding Fathers on this continent so many centuries later. After all, Korach describes an attempted revolution led by a group of aristocrats against a related group of similar aristocrats. Korach and his people were Levites, the same as Moses and Aaron are Levites. They are from the privileged class. That was also true of the leaders of the American revolution in 1776: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock and James Madison and most of them were wealthy, privileged members of the best class, colonial versions of the titled people the British sent against them.

But there was a difference: the founders of America rebelled, but did not do so to make themselves great; they did so to bring freedom and opportunity to most people here, slaves and women excepted, of course. That was not Korach’s motivation.

While we joke about the stereotype of two Jews having three opinions, the truth is that our heritage is a contentious one. If we weren’t rebelling against God and Moses we were fighting for control of the monarchy or against Philistines or Greeks or Romans. And when actual armed insurrection was beyond us we engaged in intellectual debates so intense that they bordered on warfare: from the endless, detailed Talmudic arguments to the political infighting of the Zionists to the Jewish socialists against the Jewish communists against the Jewish anarchists. There is a long and rich and highly developed Jewish tradition of Korach-ism.

The truth is that leading the Jewish people has never been an easy task—important, rewarding, ethically essential, but never easy.

So why do it? Perhaps the answer is also to be found in our Torah portion. Not so much in the desire we may have to see our enemies swallowed up whole by the earth before everyone’s eyes, although that is an attraction. No, it is in the understanding, as Korach ultimately confirms, that everyone is holy in this community of priests, but that legitimate, principled, selfless leadership is also absolutely necessary for us to achieve that holiness. We need direction, and organization, and the practical details of everyday functionality to be taken care of so that we might grow spiritually in holiness.

That is, there is a significant difference between argument and insurrection for the sake of ego, striving to make ourselves feel more important, and argument and investigation for the sake of truth, trying with genuine dedication to make things better for everyone. As our tradition teaches us, there are different ways of disagreeing.

What distinguishes Moses from those who rebel against him, like Korach, is his humble desire to do God’s will, and to further the cause of oneness and sanctity in this world. What he teaches us is that conflicts are not the goal—it is what happens after the resolution of that conflict that defines us and establishes our reputations in this world.

If we are true Jews of principle, we will have legitimate disagreements, and confront serious challenges. We may even, if you will, take down our flags from time to time. But it is our ability to accept those differences, sometimes lose the arguments, and nonetheless continue to work hard together to serve God with commitment and passion.

May the Holy One bless us all, each of us, with the wisdom to know that our path lies not with Korach and rebellion for its own sake, not with revolt for our ego’s sake, but with Moses, and a humility based on our commitments to the highest of purposes. And may we always act in this way, and truly serve God.

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