Shabbat Shalom everyone!

Every time I was asked to speak at Beth Zion, I am always aware of the time constraints. Usually, it’s because we’re trying not to keep people away from the kiddush or from enjoying Shabbat in each other’s company or with their families. This time, it’s a little bit different, because of the masks and social distancing. But the fact that we are all here, celebrating Shabbat together and celebrating a simcha together, connecting spiritually with Hashem and with one another is a testimony of our commitment to our community and to Jewish values. So, first and foremost, thank you on behalf of myself and my family for being here today, to celebrate Shabbat and our son Ariel becoming a Bar Mitzvah! And of course, endless thanks to Rabbi Benarroch who took the time and spent the energy to prepare Ariel for today, for almost a year now.

As you probably imagine, many more people, too many to mention by name, both family and very dear friends, could not make it here today and they are surely missed. Let’s all hope and pray that these very trying times we live will be over soon, so we can resume our truly normal (not merely “new normal”) relationships and be again together with our beloved ones.

With time constraints in mind, a few short words of Torah…

There is a verse in this week’s parsha which brings back memories and which has helped me understand what Judaism throughout the generations is all about. Two weeks ago, we learned from our Torah reading about a rebellion carried out by Korach, Datan and Aviram, together with 250 other people against Moses and Aaron. As tradition understands it, the rebellion was against authority as a whole, and against G-d’s prerogative to designate a leader over the congregation. The rebellion is widely condemned, the Talmud even telling us that it is the very definition of a “makhloket lo le’shem shamayim”, a dispute void of any meaning or purpose. For trying to uproot the notions of authority and leadership, for raising ridiculous challenges to Moses’ mandate, for being stubborn and defiant, Korach and his followers, together with their entire families, were swallowed by the earth which opened its mouth wide, while the rest of the rebellious crowd was consumed by divine fire.

That should have been the end of the story. But in this week’s parsha, the Torah brings us a new twist. Chapter 26, verse 11 reads: ובני קרח לא מתו — “But the sons of Korach did not die”.

The Talmud jumps on this inconsistency. One verse tells us that Korach and all this family and followers died, while another verse states that Korach’s sons survived. What’s the truth?

In Mesechet Sanhedrin 110a, the Rabbis explain that the sons of Korach were indeed involved in the rebellion led by their father. However, at the last possible moment, right before the divine punishment hit, they repented sincerely, and G-d accepted their change of heart. As a matter of fact, the Talmud makes the scene quite poetic: “a place was fortified for them in Gehinom, and they stood there reciting psalms”.

What is crucial to note is that the Talmud’s assertion is not out of the blue. In Divrei Hayamim, the text talks about the gatekeepers and psalm reciters of the Temple in the time of king David. Surprisingly, a familiar name comes up:

Shallum son of Kore son of Aviasaph son of Korach, and his kinsmen of his clan, the Korachites, were in charge of the work of the service, guards of the threshold of the Tent; their fathers had been guards of the entrance to the camp of the LORD. — Cronicles I 9:17-19

According to this verse, not only did Korach’s sons survive, but they had children of their own, who held a very important position in the Temple, a position which made it clear they accepted the very structure, tradition and authority that their father had once challenged.

Also, if we look closely in the Psalms, we notice that at least ten of them are attributed to the sons of Korach. Among them, two very important ones: “Mizmor shir livnei Korach”, which we recite at the end of our Monday davening, as shir shel yom; and the very famous “Lamnatzeach livnei Korach mizmor”, which we recite seven times right before we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Both these psalms are written — as the verses clearly point out — by the very sons of Korach, who were destined to perish with their father, but who were saved (or saved themselves) at the last moment by returning to the right path.

The message of the story is clear: huge is the power of teshuva, of repentance! But here, teshuva takes a very particular form, which can inspire us all.

As people, and especially as children, we are greatly influenced by our environments. We experience peer pressure regarding the direction we follow, the decisions we make, the actions we take, and the behavior we exhibit. Our own families often push us in one direction or another. Our schools, our friends, our communities. The path all these forces of influence direct us on is the right one (we hope), but occasionally, our guides, teachers, parents or community groups make mistakes too.

In the case of Korach’s sons, their primary source of influence was probably their father. Was it a good influence? Maybe initially it was, but the Torah clearly states that Korach’s last moments on this earth were rebellious, disrespectful, power hungry, and self centered. His children could have very easily followed in his footsteps, they actually did until the very end, but then they managed to discover the error of that way and changed for the better.

Going against or even slightly off your parents’ path is never easy. But as kids grow up, they need to make their own path. When I was a child, my father kept telling me that I need to learn to think for myself. He made it clear — as my wife and I made it clear to our kids, too — that parents are not infallible and they are certainly not G-d. Their judgement, their influence, their advice and example are very important for a child, but ultimately children must find their own way. Children need to use their own judgement, make their own decisions and possibly their own mistakes, in order to grow.

When I became a Rabbi, the gift myself and my classmates got from our ordaining Rabbinic mentor was not, as it is customary, a sefer. It was a beautiful shofar — which I still own and blow every Rosh Hashana. My Rabbi explained: “you need to stay attached to tradition, but you also need to find your own voices”. Just as a shofar’s sound is unique, so too you as individuals are unique and walk your unique paths in life.

Today, we celebrate our son Ariel becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

Ariel is a phenomenal young man, of which both my wife and I, his siblings Shiri, David and Maya and the grandparents which, unfortunately could not be here today, are extremely proud. He is a sensible, friendly, smart, caring, and very dedicated young man. He excels in school, he is responsible at home (most of the time), and he is set, through his choices and behavior, on a path to accomplishment. But more importantly, since this week, he is no longer a child. He is now halachically and morally responsible for his decisions.

Ariel — what I want you to know is this: first, that we love you immensely and we are very proud of your accomplishments. Mechayil el chayil — from strength to strength!

Second: that we are and will always be here as your parents, your family, to guide you, to help you, to be close to you. But if we ever make a mistake — which we are prone to do, as human beings — I urge you to call us to task. I urge you to always think for yourself, and to forge for yourself a path of Torah, personal and professional accomplishments, meaningful relationships, and maasim tovim.

And third: please learn from the parsha you just read today so beautifully that the path of spirituality and a sincere return to G-d is always open. Don’t be afraid to make difficult decisions in life, whenever necessary. Anchor yourself in the strength of your family, your school, and your community, and build on their good deeds with your own.

My father’s wish for me has always been, in Romanian, “să fii sănătos, mintos și mai norocos decât tatăl tău” — may you be healthy, smart and luckier than your dad! I soon came to discover that success in life is based on a bit more than luck, so my wish to you has a couple of additional ingredients: may you stay connected to your roots, may you continue to grow and find your sense of purpose, and may you stay close to G-d, to your family and to yourself in everything you do.

Mazal Tov and Shabbat Shalom to everyone!

Delivered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC
on the occasion of Ariel Rosen’s Bar Mitzvah

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