Years ago, I was at a party at the home of some friends. Several of us were sitting on a couch as their five-year-old child was playing noisily with some toys by our feet. The person next to me told him to move to the far side of the room to which the boy responded: “You’re not my sheriff!” In constructing a “midrash” on this, I heard the child proclaiming that he has a “sheriff,” actually two, both honest and duly appointed, presumably his parents and not the interloper trying to discipline him.
The Torah portion of Korach (Korach rebelled against Moses and Aaron) brings forward very significantly the issue of authority: who has it, who doesn’t, what is and is not done with it, what is legitimate authority and what is not. Who and what are the authorities in our lives? What voices of authority – inner and external – do we respond to? Who is our “sheriff” or from a different angle, as Bob Dylan puts it:
“You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Whom do we serve? Whom and what are so many Americans serving today that is tearing at the very fabric of our country, our society, and our democracy, including most notably, dangerously and reprehensibly many political and religious leaders?
In the 19th century Immanuel Kant defined what he called the moral imperative as the principle that compels a person to act. The secular idea and ideal of Utopia and the religious idea and ideal of the Messianic era are intimately related. Kant’s moral imperative is a secular conceptualization of mitzvot/commandments. Secular or religious, moral imperatives or mitzvot are the prerequisite tools for human beings to build a healed and made-whole world. In religious terms, a redeemed world.
Both systems, secular and religious, are dependent upon human beings using their (God-given) free will to make decisions leading to actions. Those actions will cumulatively contribute to the moral and ethical evolution of society and ultimately to a world of justice and peace for all. From a religious-spiritual-ethical perspective, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that for there to be a Commander who commands the observance of commandments there must be individual people who internalize a deep existential sense of feeling and being commanded. For Kant, Heschel and that little boy, it never was or would be a question of whether we need a “sheriff” in our lives or whether we must serve somebody; the only question is who and what will be that authority in our lives?
What voice of authority do we hear when checking out at the grocery store and the cashier mistakenly gives us a $10 bill and not the $1 bill in change that we should have received? Who and what are authoritative for us when walking down the street and a homeless person reaches out and asks for money? Who is our “sheriff” when we are about to engage in lashon harah/gossip or negative speech about others? What voice of authority tells us to talk about and regard those different from us – people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ folk – as “those people?” What voice are we listening to that permits us to look down upon and thereby not care about other human beings – all created by God, equally in the divine image? Who is this authority? Why do we give it a “badge” and power to influence how we think, feel and act?
What are the imperatives/mitzvot that determine for whom we vote and what we vote? When doing so, are we serving “the Lord or serving the devil?” What voices of authority do we hear and listen to as we consider how to respond to issues of global warming, gun control, women’s reproductive rights, mass incarceration and the death penalty? What is authoritative to us as we teach our children (and ourselves) about the truthful history of the United States and the horrific factual record of what white, non-indigenous Americans did, and are doing, to the indigenous people of this land, and what 400 years of slavery did to millions of African people and their descendants? Do we listen to the voice of authority that tells us how threatened our democracy is, and that we will be held accountable if our democracy goes the way of the Roman Empire?
Do we hear the voice of authority resounding within – perhaps at times screaming – telling us that we have free will and we can decide to accept moral imperatives/mitzvot as the guiding principles of our lives? Someone once said that human beings are a lot smarter than we behave. But it does not have to remain this way provided that we listen to the right voices and pay heed to moral and ethical authority. We can choose to serve God and choose not to serve the “devil.” We can choose to allow legitimate authority to influence us, and not to allow self-interest, greed, fear, hate, short sightedness, arrogance and our own ignorance to influence us. We all can choose to have a “sheriff” who carries out only and always what is just and right.
A Midrash tells us that if we go back to the place in the wilderness where the earth opened and swallowed Korach and his followers, and we put our ear to the ground there we will hear Korach say: “Moses was right, and I was wrong. Moses’ authority is from God; the authority I wanted is not and never will be.”
At the end of each day, and at the end of our lives, when our personal histories are recorded in stone, will we and others read that the “sheriff” got us and to “jail” we went? Or will it record that we got smarter, and our behavior reflected how smart we got? Whom and what do we serve?
RABBI IRVIN WISE, of Barrington, is Rabbi Emeritus of Adath Israel Congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he served for 27 years as Senior Rabbi. He retired in 2019 after more than 40 years in the rabbinate.