Dreaming and the futility of the zero-sum game
TorahParshat Korach

Dreaming and the futility of the zero-sum game

Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

(File photo)
(File photo)

According to Yale law professor Amy Chua in her book “Political Tribalism,” every country on earth was founded with a ruling elite, often in the minority, sometimes in the majority, which determines the primary ethnic status of the country — who gets to lead and who gets to be a citizen according to law — and establishes cultural and religious norms. The one exception is the United States that, despite its rocky history, offers equality to all. You could argue that equality meant different things as history progressed. Yet as America progressed forward, especially in the last two centuries, it became a place that was open to all. Work, business and politics were arenas where Americans of differing backgrounds could pursue the American Dream, a promise to everyone. Even the idea of bearing a child on American soil was different than in other countries. In America, a newborn instantly became American.

Still, throughout its history and especially now, America could be a place of exclusion when it comes to who gets to be elite. Since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, there has been a rising political tension between parts of our nation. Different subgroups (red and blue) suddenly feel threatened by government and culture, and there is a tug-of-war (imagined or real) between coastal elites and rural America.

In the last three parshiyot, there is a common theme of struggle between competing elites. God and Moses are supposed to be in charge, but the revolution still simmers as the Israelites move closer to their destination, the Promised Land.

In Parshat Beha’alotcha, we have the “rabble” who provoke “the People” and demand a better menu beyond the daily manna rations that God provides. “Who will feed us meat?” Commentators say that this “rabble” is the mixed multitude who joined the Israelites in fleeing Egypt and at times assert their authority against God and Moses. The People acquiesce to this leadership to their own detriment.

In Parshat Shlach, we have 12 “prominent men” who have not been mentioned before — except for Joshua and Caleb — who act alone, in their own interests. They are called “prominent” according to the commentary in the Zohar 158a, because
they saw themselves above the rest of the Israelites. They promoted themselves to elite status.

According to this radical reading in the Zohar, they were wary of the Israelites entering the land too soon because they worried that they would be replaced as leaders. This was their scheme: They would become a 12-person executive committee, a top brass, that would first delay entry into the land. In 40 days, the Torah reports that they only visited Hebron and its vicinity. As 12 “prominent” men, this was no secretive spying mission. What did they do with the rest of their time? The tour was a public affair and perhaps it was an occasion to do business with the Canaanites. Perhaps they acquired land for themselves with the idea that they alone would apportion it to the people. This was part of a scheme of power retention — a 12-person executive committee or top brass council that would decide how to conquer and settle the land.

They fooled the people, but they could not fool God. They thought they would make an end-run around God because they believed that God could not defeat the powerful people of the land. Everybody loses because God punishes the entire nation with a 40-year migration through the wilderness before the settlement of the Promised Land.

Finally in Korach, there is a backlash against Moses and Aaron from their own tribe, the Levites, who already represent a spiritual elite. Moses and Aaron are undermined by a small minority of Levites who join with the others who are already angry at Moses. One could argue that Moses has set himself up for this. He shows ambivalence in his leadership. Prior to this, Moses dealt with the “rabble” when they demanded meat; in this instance he and Aaron “fell on their faces” (Numbers 14:5) and despaired when the people asked to reverse course to Egypt after hearing the report of the 12 “prominent” elites (Numbers 14: 3-5). Earlier, Moses instituted shared power with a Sanhedrin and made the puzzling statement “would that the entire people be prophets” (Numbers 11:28). One could argue that he tempted Korach and company to come forward with his remarks and ambivalent behavior.

Throughout these three episodes, God, Moses and the people could not share the same dream of leadership. Various forces from within sought to lead the people along a different path, through the desert or a return to Egypt. They needed to become a United Israelite nation under God.

America is the only country in the world that at least in theory wanted the dream to be shared by everyone. Equality was the ideal after liberating itself from an all-powerful monarch in England.

And despite our own missteps in the history of equality and inequality, we keep getting ripped apart because people fear that the power they achieved in America will be taken away from them. Whether it is through voting or welcoming immigrants to our country, whether it is through culture or tastes in music or sexual orientation, the older elites feel that their country is being taken away from them. America’s national identity is no longer defined by WASPs, nor by any of America’s countless ethnic subgroups. But there is a tug-of-war that persists as to who will have their say and who should be counted out.
The American dream is a promise of freedom and hope for every individual on these shores. Like

the Israelites who struggled with elitism as they formed themselves into a nation, we still share a struggle that cannot end with a zero-sum option. On this Independence Day, we recall the words of poet Langston Hughes in his 1935 poem, “Let America be America Again”:

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be! PJC

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is the spiritual leader of New Light Congregation.This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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