When our ideas and ways of thinking seem out of sync with who we are, with our time and our circumstances, how do we correct them? How do we bring about what our tradition calls “tikkun?”
This year the Schechter Institute published Rabbi Benjamin Segal’s wonderful commentary The Book of Ruth: Paradise Gained and Lost (purchase here). He focused on Ruth as a tikkun, a prophetic corrective for the severity of the Torah and the tragedy of the period of Judges, a tale of a kinder and gentler society that never was, yet might have been, and perhaps could still be.
There is a parallel incidence of tikkun in this week’s Torah portion, Korah, in the Haftarah from the 1st Book of Shmuel (Samuel). The author of Shmuel, as well as the rabbis who chose this section as the companion study for Korah understood Shmuel’s life and mission to be a corrective on the story of Korah and the failures of the Judges.
Korah leads a group of disgruntled Israelite leaders against Moshe and Aaron, demanding a more inclusive regime. The next morning the earth swallows them up with little fuss or explanation, squashing their rebellion. The Sages engaged mostly in apologetics for this harsh punishment, creating an image of Korah as a dangerous demagogue. The slow-of-speech Moses and peacemaker Aaron had no response to his populism, so the Lord had to step in.
But the 1st Book of Shmuel provides an alternative way of understanding the rebellion in the desert. Similarly, the Prophet Shmuel faces a rebellion. The tribal leaders reject the leadership of the Judges, demanding that Shmuel appoint a king to rule over them like other nations. Shmuel rebukes them eloquently, but fails to convince.
Then Shmuel, like his predecessor Moshe, complains bitterly to the Lord about his ungrateful people. He has given his all to them, and asked for nothing in return. Yet this time, rather than wiping the rebels out, the Lord instructs Shmuel to play the role of kingmaker, and give the rebels what they want. The Haftarah picks up the story with the coronation of Saul, the first king of Israel at Gilgal. Shmuel’s speech there is a passionate renewal of the Israelite covenant with God.
Towards the end of Bamidbar (Numbers 26:11) we find out that the children of Korah did not die with the rebels. In fact, one of Korah’s descendants as per Divrei Hayamim (1st Chronicles 6:13) was none other than Shmuel himself. On one hand, according to Tehilim, Shmuel is the worthy successor to Moshe and Aaron (Psalm 99:6). On the other hand, his lineage is from their discredited rival, Korah, suggesting an alternative view. This time God’s response to rebellion is to accept the will of the people, and agree to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy following the disastrous period of lawlessness and civil war under the Judges, hence the tikkun or corrective for the story of Korah.
My parents always called me Eitan (Ethan in English), but that’s my middle name. The name given to me at my Brit Milah and appearing on official documents is Shmuel (Samuel). My mother’s uncle, Shmuel Shainerman, was a citrus farmer and agronomist, a founder of Moshav Kfar Malal in the Sharon region of Israel’s coastal plain. He passed away the year before I was born, and I am his namesake. My parents met at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in 1951, where my father was a kibbutz member and my mother was a volunteer nurse from America. Soon after my mother returned to America, my father became very ill and went to the US for medical treatment. They met up again, married and raised my brothers and me in New York.
A decade ago, long after my mother’s death and after I brought my frail father to Israel to live out his last years with us, I cleared out their New York apartment, where I found a drawer with old letters written to my parents in the 1950s and 1960s. One of them, from my great uncle Shmuel, was written in 1954 just after my older brother was born. In it he implored them to return home, explaining simply that Israel is the best place for Jews to raise their children.
I’ve lived in Israel for four decades. For many years, when people would ask me why I made Aliya, my most frequent response to them was the same as Uncle Shmuel’s explanation to my parents a generation earlier. Although my parents didn’t follow his advice, by the time I discovered his letter, my wife Anita and I had raised four wonderful children here in Jerusalem. Finding this letter has led me to think that whether we are aware of it or not, like in the Biblical stories of Ruth and Shmuel, in our times there arise opportunities for tikkun – personal and societal – to correct what should have happened long before and didn’t, but still could be, if only we would seize them!
Shavua Tov from Schechter.
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.
Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.