Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Cohen - Pinky Promise
The Biblical character “Korach” is relatively unknown to many, if not most, American Jews. Yet, this week’s Torah portion is named for him. Fair warning: his tale has all the underpinnings of a b-horror movie. Korach is Moses’ nemesis. In a familiar plot line, Korach is jealous that Moses has all the power and whips up a rebellion against him. Spoiler alert: Korach pays dearly for his opposition. The earth opens and swallows Korach and his most loyal followers. And, those 2nd-tier followers not eaten by the earth? A fire bursts forth and incinerates them. The Biblical story of Korach is chilling but, perhaps, thankfully, has not found its way into our daily speech.
Korach, though, was a common personality and household word in Ladino culture. Ladino is a Spanish-Hebrew dialect and the culture of many Sephardic Jews. Basically, it’s the Yiddish of the Sephardic world. Today, like Yiddish, its largely died out of daily use but, in its hay day, Ladino was a rich, fascinating and widespread.
Dr. Samuel Raphael of Bar Ilan University did a fascinating study of our biblical rebel, Korach, in Ladino culture. The name “Korach” is used in several Ladino phrases.
- For example, if you want to call somebody “nouveau riche”, you would say that he “became like Korach” (azirsee Korach).
- Or, if you want to quiet somebody down, in Ladino culture, you might say “Do not let me open my mouth and shower you with the curses of Korach."
- When Ladino children would make their version of a “pinky promise,” they worked the name of Korach into their oath.
Why is Korach such a big “player” in Ladino culture? First, Ladino literature includes colorful descriptions of many Biblical personalities, which became part of vernacular speech. But, Korach perhaps owes his prominence to Rabbi Yaakov Culi. Rabbi Culi was an “influencer” in 18th Century Turkey. He wrote the seminal Ladino Biblical commentary, Me’am Lo’ez. Rabbi Culi took an interest in Korach and featured him prominently in his commentary. Basically, he did for Korach what Lin Manuel Miranda has done for Hamilton in our time.
Why is Ladino and Korach important this week? First, its the Torah portion and there’s something to be said for studying the same texts as the rest of the Jewish world.
More importantly, though, I find beauty, and intrigue, in our multi-faceted, rich Jewish cultural world. I hope that you do, too. In these days of Covid-19, we are all staying home more and seeing other people less. Our world can seem smaller, sometimes suffocatingly so. While it might feel like the universe ends with your living room walls, it isn’t so. Pinky promise: fully acknowledging the weight of Korach’s curse, I firmly believe that our culture, community and tradition – like so many others – opens up vast universes for us. We just need to be willing to use the key.