Coming immediately after the disastrous episode of the 10 spies, and on top of the already growing frustration of the Israelites over living conditions in the desert, the stage was set, as some commentators have suggested, for the tumultuous events in Korah, this week’s Torah portion. The parashah begins in a startling and troubling manner. Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram, (with help from 250 chieftains of the Israelite community), provocatively challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership proclaiming themselves as the new leaders of the community.
Although initially shocking, the Korahite uprising is quickly put down in spectacular fashion when God chillingly destroys the rebels. As the Torah says: “Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking…when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up and their households, all Korah’s people and their possessions. They went down alive…the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”
In another miraculous turn of events just a short time later, God instructs Moses to collect the staff of the chieftains of each of the 12 tribes — with Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi — and deposit the staffs in the Tent of Meeting. God authoritatively declares that the staff of the person he chooses will sprout. The Torah tells us that the next day Aaron’s staff “brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds,” re-affirming both his and, by extension, Moses’ continued leadership. The foiled rebellion meant that Moses and Aaron had to seriously address the restiveness and anger of the Israelites as they continued to lead them on their protracted journey to the Promised Land.
The parashah clearly portrays Korah’s behavior in a negative light. A commonly held view is that Korah was a classic demagogue: that he was simply out for himself, with little or no regard for others. Indeed, the rebellion that he fomented was not for the sake the Heaven but was carried out for his own personal aggrandizement, not with the interests of the Israelite people in mind. This attitude contrasts sharply with the parashah and haftorah’s ideal model of leadership, which underscores “selfless service on behalf of justice and a commitment to righteousness in societal affairs.” At the same time, while most commentators believe that Korah went too far, some have suggested that a healthy dose of skepticism, if not some degree of assertiveness, is warranted and necessary in certain situations to help make sure that leadership — religious or otherwise — remains vibrant and responsible.
Whatever one’s perspective, this parashah has special meaning for me because it was my son, Aaron’s, Bar Mitzvah portion 17 years ago. Not only was that a very exciting day for me and my wife, (as well as for the rest our family), but also I remember that it was around that time I introduced Aaron to competitive amateur cycling. Indeed, I vividly recall taking him to the old Alberto’s bike shop in Hubbard Woods, Illinois, and buying him his first bike: a Trek 1000, which stills sits in our recreation room today. Since then and 4 or 5 bikes later, Aaron raced in the legendary Little 500 at Indiana University, along with numerous collegiate and USA circuit cycling races. When he realized that he was not going to be the next Lance Armstrong (thank God), he took his studies more seriously and has since become one of the leading experts on terrorism and jihadi groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But that is a story for another time and place.
In the meantime, besides introducing him to cycling, I also turned him on to becoming, as I had already done, a big fan of professional cycling races, perhaps the premier one of which is the Tour de France, now in full swing. Considered one of the Grand Tours of professional cycling, the Tour de France has a long and storied history, with an interesting Jewish connection. In fact, the Tour began in 1903 and its roots can be traced to the Dreyfus Affair. This happened when Jules-Albert de Dion, an anti-Dreyfusard, established the sports paper, L’Auto, to rival Le Velo, France’s first and largest sports publication, whose editor, Pierre Giffard, publicly supported Dreyfus. It is fascinating that the Tour de France came into being as a way to help boost L’Auto’s flagging sales. It may seem a bit strange but sponsorship of long distance cycling races back then was a popular way to help sell newspapers.
Today, the Tour de France is held in the beginning of July and consists of 21 stages over 23 days and covers about 2,200 miles. Each year between 20 and 22 teams compete, with nine riders on each team. The race alternates between clockwise and counterclockwise stages of France, but in recent years it has also included circuits in nearby countries. For example, in 2015 the Tour de France began in the Netherlands. The rider with the lowest aggregate time is the winner of the race – it’s called the general classification — and is awarded the coveted yellow jersey. Last year’s winner was Chris Froome, a 30-year old British rider for team Sky.
The race for the general classification is the oldest –and the one that gets most, if not all, of the media attention. But in addition to this high profile contest, there are four other races within the Tour de France: the mountain’s classification; the points or sprinter’s competition; the young rider classification for the cyclist under age 26 who finishes the race with the lowest aggregate time; and the team classification, with the winner going to the team whose top three riders each day have the lowest total time.
While it may seem a bit farfetched, there are a number of interesting parallels between Judaism and the Tour de France. Like Judaism, the Tour de France has a long and rich tradition. Like Judaism, the Tour de France requires a great deal of dedication, hard work and commitment. Like Judaism, the Tour de France requires enormous individual effort, but also extraordinary teamwork and a strong sense of community. And, like Judaism, the Tour de France has evolved and has developed over time to keep pace with political, economic and technological changes.
Like the Tour, Judaism must continue evolving to meet the challenges now and in the years ahead. This will mean striking a delicate balance between adopting appropriate innovations to help provide positive, meaningful and compelling experiences for America’s Jews, while at the same time attempting to preserve the core principles, values and authenticity of the Jewish tradition. It is not going to be easy, given the major demographic, social and economic transformation taking place in the Jewish community, but thoughtful and courageous leadership like that envisioned in the Torah is essential to move in this direction, and to help ensure the future of Jewish life in the United States.