June 6, 2013
Lies, lies, lies
Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)
My daughter, a soon-to-graduate high school senior, was chosen by a teacher to participate in an event to teach the school a lesson about drunk driving. Before school one day, organizers would set up a scene with a crashed car and police tape. My daughter and the other chosen participants would gather in a room instead of attending first period, making them appear to be missing. It would then be announced that they had been killed in the crash.
In a letter sent home for me to sign, organizers wrote that this event had great potential to teach a strong, experiential lesson about the importance of not driving while drunk. They asked us to follow the rules of the plan, committing to maintain its secrecy — my daughter was forbidden to tell other students, even her own boyfriend. And I was asked to play along, too, appearing at a school assembly to speak about the tragedy of losing my child to drunk driving.
The scenario came to mind while thinking about this week’s parasha, named for Korach, who led an insurrection against Moses and Aaron. Korach rounded up some 250 community leaders and they began to foment discontent among the masses. They underscored the people’s hunger, suggesting that things were better in Egypt, the “true land of milk and honey.” They undermined confidence in Moses and Aaron, saying they had only brought them all to the desert to die. And they asserted that everyone in the camp is holy, not just the leaders who claimed to be chosen by God. Thus, everyone should be empowered to lead. There is no need for hierarchy!
These arguments seemed to be based on the public’s best interest. The people did need to eat; maybe the fact that they felt their needs were going unmet was proof that Moses and Aaron could not be trusted. And the social anarchism Korach’s men seemed to be propounding — that the best ruler is the people themselves — is an attractive argument to any downtrodden lot.
What the mutineers failed to mention as they spread their discontent was that their motivation was far from pure. Korach was a Levite, a cousin of Moses; others were leaders in the Reubenite tribe. The midrash makes the connection: These were men who felt they and their families had been overlooked in the selection of Aaron and his sons to serve in the Temple as priests.
They wanted what Moses and Aaron had: power. They did not plan to make things more comfortable, safe and fair; rather, they wanted to be in charge. Their words were propaganda, designed to manipulate the public to their own ends. But as it says in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), controversy that is not for the sake of heaven, such as the deceptive words of Korach and his band, will not prevail. In fact, Korach and all his followers were swallowed up by the earth later in the chapter.
My daughter’s school was proposing to create a grand-scale lie and asked my family to be a part of perpetuating it. I thought of how I would feel if I thought my daughter was killed in a car crash, even for a second, and I pictured her friends beside themselves with distress. They might sneak their phones and text their parents, or post the “news” to social media, potentially spreading panic across the city. The police could be besieged with calls, wasting taxpayers’ money. Someone hearing the news could have a heart attack or sustain other injuries.
I declined to permit my daughter to participate, calling the plan unacceptable. The trust that students and parents have in their school is a precious commodity that administrators should not bring into question. If they would lie about the safety of children, what else would they do that should not be believed?
Apparently, I was not the only parent who refused to play along. Organizers retooled the event, which was held last week, keeping the crashed-car display and the school assembly, but leaving out the mock loss of life. As it turned out, five Irvine teens were killed for real in a collision the day before, putting parents nationwide on edge. It’s a good thing cooler heads prevailed.
The problem with lies isn’t just that they are false and aggravating. They distort the reality of their recipients, creating a prison in which the teller is empowered toward his or her own ends, but everyone else is held captive. In the big picture, lies set in motion forces that, once loosed, cannot be contained; a force with the potential to destroy the foundation of trust, the very ground on which we stand as a society.
No wonder the midrash says the sun and moon threatened to stop shining if God did not make sure Moses prevailed over Korach.
Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.