In the State Senate: little new under the sun

Watching our State Senators compete with each other for who can act more childish has been quite the exercise this past week. On more than one occasion, I found myself wondering how it could be that they could be so blissfully unaware of just how infantile they look to their constituencies. And, of course, how sweet it will be to replace them when the time comes.

There are, of course, real issues behind the current political dysfunction in Albany. There always are in such situations. But as mental health practitioners often say, the presenting problem is rarely the problem. Whatever the “real” issues are, they most probably mask others that are more real, and lie behind the kind of anger that has led to the kind of childish petulance we have witnessed. As often as not, if it’s not about money, then it’s about ego.

Hmmm, where have I heard this before?

Like a gift from God, this week’s Torah portion is all about Korach, the famous mutineer against the authority of Moses. Korach, of course, presents himself as a champion of the common man. “Moses,” he says, “everyone is holy. Why do you and Aaron hold yourselves up as some kind of exalted leaders?”

Nice try, Korach; that kind of populist rant does indeed get the attention of more than a few Israelites, and poses a serious problem for Moses and Aaron. There’s only one problem with it, though; it’s not true.

What really bothers Korach is that he’s jealous of his first cousins Moses and Aaron. They were all born to sons of Levi- Moses and Aaron to Amram, and Korach to Yitzhar, the next eldest. As Amram’s first-born, it is hardly surprising, though it surely rankled Korach, that Moses assumes such a significant leadership position. After all, the first-born son of the oldest son… makes sense. But why, wonders Korach, does Aaron become the father of the priesthood? Why are the children of Amram boxing him out, the oldest son of Yitzhar? They’re all priests, after all. Why isn’t Korach up there in front of everyone, issuing blessings and pronouncements and communicating with God?

Well, you might say that the answer to those ostensibly decent questions is to be found in the way Korach handles his discontent. His disposition is hardly suited to high office. His motivation for leadership is rooted in ego, plain and simple, and thus do his arguments earn the negative label of being a “machloket shelo l’shem shamayim;” an argument not for heaven’s sake.

To be perfectly honest, I stopped listening this week to what both our Democrat and Republican State Senators were saying. I lost interest, and found it too depressing to focus on. The reason was, simply, that it so clearly had become a “machloket shelo l’shem shamayim.“ They were not arguing about issues, but rather about turf, ego, and power.

As Ecclesiastes would have said, “there is little that is new under the sun.” Whether with Korach or with our State Senators, the spectacle is embarrassing. We deserve better.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.