Parshat Korach: Devastation. Disappointment. Déjà vu. Dallas.

This sermon was originally delivered by Rabbi Seth Limmer at Chicago Sinai Congregation on Friday, July 8, 2016. You can find more racial justice resources at


Devastation.  Disappointment.  Déjà vu.  Dallas.

How do we respond to more callous killings? Of police officers?  By police officers? How do we live our daily lives in a time filled with such tension?

I find answers to these questions by turning to our Torah Portion.  This parashah is in no way a perfect parallel to the events of this week; it provides no perfect parable that neatly explains all the details of the complicated mess of racial injustice in America.  But it does provide a guide for navigating our way through the anger and rage that often attend anxiety.

In a biblical time of communal tension, Moses and Aaron huddled inside the Tent of Meeting while Korach and his crowd protested outside:

Then the Presence of ADONAI appeared to the whole community, and Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, the elders of Israel following him. He addressed the community, saying, “Move away from these wicked men and do not get involved in anything that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins.” So they withdrew from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram… (Numbers 16:19-27).

When one sins, will you be wrathful with the whole community?  Moses asks this Question of God; we ask it of the snipers who took the lives of police officers.  The same officers our justice system—and our religious tradition—would have us presume to be innocent.  This, even though, every day, any presumption of police innocence seems more and more difficult to maintain. Will you be wrathful with the whole community? Let us remember that every human being is created in the Image Divine, and our obligation is to discover that Divinity, not to overlook it and see solely a stereotype.  This, what the snipers should have done before murdering police officers; this, what police officers should have done before murdering Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Withdraw from the community of Korach!  This, the divine command to the Children of Israel.  This, too, the command to every single police officer in America: the charge to stand up, publicly, and aver that Black Lives Matter, that Alton B. Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile of Minneapolis, and Sandra Bland, and Trayvon Martin, and Erik Gardner, and Tamir Rice and the more than 1,000 people killed by police every year DO, in fact, MATTER.  The divine command to every police officer in America is to withdraw from behind the thin blue line, to withdraw from the community of those who hide behind the badge, physically to separate themselves from that seemingly self-reinforcing police culture that fails to enforce the law both for people whose skin is Black and for officers whose uniforms are blue.  Withdraw from the community! The divine command in America to those of us beyond the bounds of the policing community is to withdraw from our community that pretends nothing is wrong with our civil society, that we live in a nation that is not completely broken.

Lest you be wiped out for all their sins.   After turmoil upon turmoil, crime upon crime, murder after murder, let us recognize that any community—the law enforcement community, and all of American society—will be judged for its actions and its accountability.  Actions and accountability need to come from Americans, and from its Police officers.  When it comes to Police, would that ten—even only ten!—good officers anywhere in America were willing to speak up and say that  the murder of black people by the police is wrong and should be punished by law.  We need a Moses and an Aaron to appear in the policing community to stand up boldly and say, "Move away from these wicked men, and do not get involved in anything that belongs to them."   Until such brave souls step forward, we are left only to talk about criminal cops and complacent sinners in their midst who—and this is the unfortunate reality—stand silently by.

Lest you be wiped out for all their sins.   As Americans, we are affected by this pernicious police racism, regardless of the color of our skins.  And so let us not only ask for brave, new leaders from the ranks of law enforcement, but allow us also to demand District Attorneys be held to account for failing to prosecute those with whom, in other criminal cases, they are constant co-conspirators.  Let us call for presidents of fraternal orders of police to admit that not every officer is innocent, that the entire culture of law enforcement needs wholesale change.  We do not want to be wiped away with the murderous sin of racism staining America today.  And so we can no longer be part of the commonplace conversation claiming, "There are only a few bad officers," or “These are isolated incidents,” or “As I white person I feel guilty, but there is nothing I can do.”  There is simply too much that WE MUST DO.

In a time of great communal tension, Moses and Aaron huddle inside the Tent of Meeting while Korach and his crowd protest outside.  The tension, even tempered, ultimately explodes into a macabre carnival of death and danger.  No sooner is Korach exterminated than a plague is loosed on the entire community.  Wrath literally consumes the company of Korach, and figuratively the entire community of Israel as well.

The only comforting coda comes from the Haftarah: Come, let us go to Gilgal and renew our sovereignty.  A new form of government—itself imperfect and needing to be improved over time—is put into place.  A community is organized with full consent of priest and prophet: Israel is united under a rule that aspires to be Divine. 

Setting that Divine path is what we need to do today.  May we dedicate ourselves to bringing the principles of divinity—that Divinity deposited in the soul of every human being—to a new America that moves beyond the barbarities of today.