Faultlines

Sermon for June 24, 2011

As the summer begins, we look around us and see rebellion, discontent, and tragedy all around us. In the United States, we are dealing with horrendous floods in the Midwest and the aftermath of devastating tornadoes in the South. We look around the world and see Japan still struggling with radioactive waste and its failing nuclear reactors, Greece economically imploding, the Syrian despot killing his own people by the hundreds, Khadafy trying to hold on to Libya, Hamas attempting to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority, and continuing war and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Arab spring, revolts against the authoritative regimes that rule most of the Arab world continue. What begin six months ago in Tunisia has forced regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. Assad in Syria and Khadafy in Libya are struggling to hold on to rule. The rulers of Saudi Arabia staved off rebellion through billions of dollars in subsidies to the population of the kingdom. Discontent in the Gulf States was ruthlessly put down by the authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, Israel is an island of peace and prosperity in a turbulent and terrible neighborhood.

We know not where the Egyptian revolution will lead. We do know that peace with Egypt has been an incredible benefit to Israel. “In the mid-1970’s, Israeli military spending had soared to over a third of Israel’s gross domestic product. By 1982, when Israel had completed the Sinai pullout, defense spending had dropped to under a quarter of the GDP. It has continued to fall ever since- to just seven percent of the GDP in 2010. Total government spending and the national debt have dropped dramatically in tandem. The peace dividend with Egypt has been essential to Israel’s transformation from a third world to a first world economy.”

For the last thirty-four years, Israel has had a cold peace with Egypt. Despite its frigidity, a cold peace is much better for everyone than a hot war. Many observers think that this could change. In September, Egypt will hold supposedly free elections for a new parliament. Undoubtedly, the new Egyptian government will be much more hostile to Israel than the Mubarak government it replaced.

The question to be asked of any revolution is “Who benefits?” What group of people rises to the top and replaces those who previously governed? In one of the most influential books I have ever read, “On Revolution,” the historian, Crane Brinton, studies four revolutions, the English revolution of 1688, the American, French, and Russian revolutions. He determined that revolutions are always led by members of the upper middle class, leaders who mobilize the lower classes to do their bidding through calls for democracy. What ultimately happens in a revolution is that one elite replaces another. The people at the bottom of society, those who provide the revolution’s cannon fodder, rarely benefit from change at the top. It also happens that the new leaders of the country focus the population’s anger and disappointment upon foreign leaders and states, blaming the country’s problems on others. Analysts are very concerned that Egypt’s new rulers will blame Israel for Egypt’s problems. This will lead to a deterioration of relationships and the real possibility of military conflict. This would solidify the hold of Egypt’s new rulers and would force the people to back the new regime.

We know from this week’s Torah portion that this revolutionary dynamic is at least as old as the Jewish people. “Contentiousness, dissent, and upheaval mark the opening of Parashat Korach. Dissatisfied with his status among the people, Korach leads a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. His claim: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation? (Numbers 16:3)” At first glance, Korach’s argument is not outlandish. “Why should only a certain class of people be considered greater than others if all are holy in the eyes of God? In the words of the great medieval French commentator Rashi, “all the congregation are holy- they all heard the utterances on Sinai from the mouth of God…it is not you alone who have heard at Sinai: ‘I am the Lord your God,’ all the congregation heard it. For Korach, witnessing God’s revelation is the ultimate equalizer. Anyone present at that moment should be on equal footing with Moses and Aaron, for they too are holy.

We learn a verse earlier that Korach gathered 250 tribal chieftains, men of repute, to oppose Moses and Aaron. In fact, we learn elsewhere that Korach happens to be Moses and Aaron’s cousin! We have here simply one elite, Korach and his band, who want to supplant another elite, Moses, Aaron, and their supporters in leadership of the JeThe reason why Korach ultimately fails is that God directly chose Moses and Aaron for leadership. “The legitimate leaders appointed by heaven cannot be challenged; it is they who will carry out the mission according to the divine assignment. Korach’s failed attempt is a reminder that the divine order is not easily adjusted, and that Moses and Aaron’s leadership- even if flawed at times- was in place for a purpose and designated on high.”

If only it was this easy to determine true leadership in modern times. In every revolution previously mentioned, the divine right of kings was discredited and the rights of man were triumphant. Real life is not nearly as clear as our biblical story. It is much more difficult to tell right from wrong as we live through it. What we can do is pray to the Holy One that the revolutions of the Arab Spring will eventually bring peace and prosperity to the entire Middle East.
Kein Y’hi Ratson- May it be Your will.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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