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Torah Portion: Living with clergy killers

by Rabbi Dov Fischer

June 18, 2014 | 9:26 am

Korach is a fascinating Torah portion because, as happens so often when the Torah narrates real-life events, the characters ring incredibly true. We all know superficially good people who have so much going for them, yet who propel themselves down a horrific course of self-destruction, driven by jealousy or incomprehensible animus. 

These feelings, often born of an overwhelming inferiority complex or personal instability, frequently find their nearest convenient outlet when targeted at the pastor, the priest, the rabbi. It’s so commonplace that Christian theologians even coined a term for it: clergy killers. Based on this week’s parasha, you could also call it the Korach phenomenon.

Korach had everything. He was of dynastic heritage, born into the nobility of the Levite tribe. That assured him of extraordinary importance from the moment that his mom finished pushing, and the words “It’s a boy!” were spoken. 

He also was extraordinarily charismatic. Beyond gathering to his side the ubiquitous Datan and Aviram, who seem to be at the center of all the anti-Moses rebellions, Korach successfully assembled among his champions the cream of post-Exodus society: 250 “heads of the tribes, elect personages, men of renown” (Numbers 16:2). He was articulate, fearless and authoritative. He had it all.

But he wanted more than “all.” He wanted what Aaron the Kohen had (Numbers 16:10). Impelled by this driving jealousy to be even more important, he sought to supplant Aaron, leading his followers — and himself — to utter destruction that would culminate in their being swallowed by the earth beneath them.

I’ve seen this sort of scene play out in more modern times (minus the ground opening up). For the past five years, I quietly have played a national role as a point man among my colleagues in the Rabbinical Council of America in cases where rabbis have been targeted by members of their congregations for the politics of destruction. Rabbis phone or email me and describe circumstances. I listen and read, then speak with responsible lay leadership at their congregations to learn more. 

In each and every case, I am struck by how dearly loved these rabbis are by a majority of their shul. Yet, inexorably, a small coterie of Korachs — by virtue of their status within the congregation, whether as temple officers or board members or primary donors or just plain functionaries — carry the fight to drive out the rabbi. The real reason they often do it is because they are jealous or insecure, but usually they just say, well, they hate his guts. It always comes down to that: They just hate his guts with all the same caustic and destructive intensity that brought Korach to ruination.

I consult with congregational memberships and am fascinated by that majority who, though they like or even love the rabbi, just want peace and quiet, and do not otherwise want to get involved. So, expressing discomfort and some guilt, they acquiesce to the campaign to kick the rabbi out of town. 

Perhaps most fascinating are the cases where a rabbi devoted so much — his own time and life, his family’s time and planned vacations, time with his  spouse or children — to help a congregant sinking in a desperate personal crisis turn his life around. And then, after the rabbi has virtually saved that person’s life — preserving a marriage, restoring a ruptured relationship between parent and child, helping an individual in crisis to overcome the greatest challenge in her life — that person suddenly, inexplicably, turns on the rabbi with a vengeance a year or two later.

My clergy colleagues across denominations and faiths all have encountered the phenomenon. Essentially, the person whom the pastor helped now cannot face her clergy because she cannot abide that someone living in her ambit has seen her, now a successful pillar in the community, when she was utterly despondent. So she sees her clergy and thinks: “Pastor Jones knows me behind my veil and façade; knows who I really am; knows my vulnerability; has seen me cry and shake. And that is what Pastor is thinking every time he sees me. So I need to get him out of here.”

But what Pastor Jones actually is thinking is: “If I make the credit card minimum payment on Thursday, then I think I can swing getting this month’s mortgage paid by the  8th, two days before the bank assesses the penalty. And I hope my kid remembered to buy more milk today because I used up the last bit this morning at breakfast. And when is my daughter going to get a real job?” That is what the pastor is thinking, as his clergy-killer is planning to get him fired and driven out of town.

When you study this week’s Torah portion, think about your rabbi. Think about his guts and his mortgage. Ask yourself whether, if you could do it again, you would study years in seminary and then live in a fish bowl the rest of your professional life. Give him a break, and enjoy living above ground.

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