Building Justice from Grievance

I mean, it’s the perfect scenario for dealing with your political opponents, isn’t it? A rebellion is on your hands; hundreds are amassed against you; and you call upon God to judge the matter. The earth opens up, swallows your foes whole, and just like that, there is peace in the realm.

Imagine the painful divisions in our own nation handled with such swiftness and ease.

In this week’s Torah portion, KorachMoses and Aaron face such a crowd, 250 angry and jealous men, arrayed beside Korach, Dathan and Abiram, who are demanding that Moses and Aaron share power, accusing them of hoarding holiness unto themselves. Korach, like Moses and Aaron, is from the Tribe of Levi and stakes his claim on the notion that leadership should be more evenly distributed. Dathan and Abiram are from the Tribe of Reuben and represent for the narrative a wild jealousy over inheritance, power, land, and leadership. It’s an ugly scene. 

Korach’s Rebellion, Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860The battle lines are clear. It is a fight for the future. It is in the heat of the moment. And if the insurgency is not dealt with quickly, the nascent enterprise of Israelite freedom could be perilously sunk into the quicksand of their desert wandering. History is littered with such sputtered failures.

The narrative arc of the story, set deep in the mythos of Biblical language, is fantastical. For a generation which miraculously made it through parted waters; heard God’s commanding voice in the thunder and flame of Sinai; and gathered ample portions of quail and manna to sustain themselves by fresh water wells on their journey; perhaps the earth swallowing up rebels was not such a stretch.

But for us today? This is the material of Bible-thumping street corner preachers or erstwhile subway prophets (remember those?) interrupting our otherwise solitary laboring in books, iPhones, or traversing city blocks from one appointment to another. We don’t really believe in or have much time for prophecy and divine retribution anymore.

And of course, everything old is new again, because the sages of the Talmud didn’t have much time for it either. When Israel went into Exile, the rabbis taught, God went into Exile, too. Not as the thunder and the fire, but as Elijah taught, as the “still, small voice,” as conscience, faith and deed. Reversing the exilic process would take work, not miracles; patience, not the broiling flames of momentary passion; and dialogue, not the singular pronouncement from “on high.”

What is the story of Korach really about? What is any conflict or rebellion really about? It’s about grievance; it’s about the demand that claims be addressed; it’s about one wanting to rid oneself, like a stain or an intolerable pain, of the experience of injustice. And in the same manner in which water wears away stone, it’s about the recognition of the fundamental notion that nothing happens overnight. Change takes time:  second by second; minutes by minute; hour by hour; day by day; year by year.

Criminal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative tells a humorous story about the time he met Rosa Parks early in his career. She asked him who he was and what he was all about. She wanted to know his plans. And man, did he have plans. He listed for this giant of the Civil Rights movement all the ways he was going to tackle historic injustices like racism, mass incarceration, inequality in policing and before the law. And Parks eyed him up carefully before saying, “You’re going to be tired, tired, tired.” It’s a charming moment which you can watch here in Bryan’s Ted Talk. His point hits home.

Addressing grievance requires the focus of urgency right alongside heroic patience. How do we address injustice without wearing ourselves out?  How do we offer a rebuke without alienating others and ourselves in the process?

The Talmud tells the story in which the sages, in their own day, are asking if anyone even knows how to rebuke another person. “Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri once said, ‘I used to complain about Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel would rebuke him. But I truly know that each time Akiva was rebuked, he loved me more and more! For it says in Scripture, Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you. Rebuke a wise man and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)

Rabbi Akiva in Mantua Haggadah, 1568The scholar Barry Holtz points out, in his biography of Akiva, that the Sages are really getting it — a definition of how to rebuke and how to receive rebuke. In each encounter, fundamental criticisms must be given and received with love. This is the essence of wisdom. Holtz reminds us that what would surely have undergirded the Sages’ enterprise (especially in a time of great tumult, revolt and division under Roman rule in Second Temple times) was the Torah verse, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor but bear no sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Eternal.” (Leviticus 18:17-18)

How we correct others and how we allow ourselves to be corrected — herein lie the seeds of a more fruitful and prosperous social discourse. There is more than enough fire and brimstone to go around. What we need are the nourishing waters of wisdom, understanding and patience in order to endure the many ordeals we face in our cities and capitals across the land.

“The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” That is also one of Bryan Stevenson’s favorite quotes. Righting the intolerable wrongs of the past and the present takes courage; hard work; even a righteous, steely indignation that can forge new forms and institutions predicated on equality and freedom for all. But building a truly just society also requires patience, hope and love.