According to reports, when a young stranger walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday night, the senior pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, invited the young man to sit next to him so that he would feel welcome. It was literally an article of faith that the church should embrace the young man, though he was not a regular member of the community, though he was white in a historically black church. These things didn’t matter to Pinckney and the other members of the Bible study group that met that night. What mattered to them were tenets of faith and the standards of their community, a congregation built on the premise of inclusion, particularly inclusion of the marginalized and rejected.
Rev. Pinckney’s church was established by a group of men including the former slave Denmark Vesey, who was tried in secret and executed in 1822 for his part in planning a slave revolt. In a 2013 speech to civil rights leaders, Rev. Pinckney detailed the obligations of the church, and its leaders, to the people it serves, explaining, “In a nutshell, you can say that the African American church, particularly in South Carolina, really has seen it as its responsibility and its ministry and its calling to be fully integrated and caring about the lives of its constituents and the general community… Many of us don’t see ourselves as just a place where we come to worship, but as a beacon and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people.”
This sense of community obligated Rev. Pinckney and his congregants to welcome Dylann Roof into their church, and it was what made them vulnerable to his violence. In the same week that the members of Mother Emanuel sat with their murderer in contemplation of the biblical text, Jewish communities everywhere read the story of Korach, a fantastical and violent episode in the Israelites’ desert wanderings. In the opening chapter, Korach, a Levite, gathers a group of rebels and challenges Moses and Aaron’s leadership. In response, Moses suggests a test: Korach and his followers should prepare the ritual objects of the priesthood – fire pan and incense – and bring them before God; Aaron will do the same, and God will decide who deserves the priesthood. Korach fails the test. The earth opens up and swallows him and his family, erasing any trace of them, and his followers are consumed by fire.
The Pirkei Avot suggests that Korach was punished because his dispute was “not for the sake of heaven,” although it gives no particular reason why. Moses implies that Korach’s interest in leadership was not for the sake of the community, as he suggested, but rather self-serving. He asks, “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minster to the community and serve them?” Korach, already a member of the priestly tribe, simply wants more power for himself.
But a brief, strange episode in the middle of the parsha offers an alternative to the self-aggrandizing quest for power represented by Korach’s rebellion. After the Israelites, fearful, complain that Moses has brought death into their midst, God tells Moses and Aaron, “Remove yourselves from this community, that I may annihilate them in an instant.” But a funny thing happens: Moses and Aaron disobey God. Instead of running away to save themselves, Moses orders Aaron to go into the community with fire from the altar and make expiation for the Israelites in order to save them. Aaron goes out into the midst of a devastating plague, and “stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” Aaron, on Moses’ orders, literally stands in between the people and the plague to defend the community, risking his own life doubly. The death toll is terrible, but Moses and Aaron prevent the plague from destroying their entire community. And Moses and Aaron are not punished, but rather offered a sign to strengthen their clout as leaders. Their rebellion against divine authority, unlike Korach’s, is sanctioned.
Clearly, the text offers the example of Moses and Aaron as a paradigm of leadership, not despite their dissent, but because of it. In defending their community, even in defiance of God, they proved their worth as leaders and as human beings. Their dispute was “for the sake of heaven,” and they escaped death, but it could just as easily have gone the other way.
Rev. Pinckney understood the lesson of Korach well. He himself took this responsibility to his community seriously, as a state legislator and a clergyman. But his priority was always the church, and if Rev. Pinckney had an obligation there, as he did on Wednesday night, he would leave his legislative work in the capitol to be with the people he led. Because of his dedication, his devotion to church and state and the people they both served, he placed himself, like Aaron, between the living and the dead, the last line of defense against injustice and hatred.
He knew well the potential consequences of this kind of leadership, of standing “for the sake of heaven.” Reflecting on his church’s history, Rev. Pinckney said, “that’s what the church is all about. Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be and have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.” He led a church founded by men who gave their lives for this principle: better to risk death than abandon your people. Like those men, Rev. Pinckney took his fire pan and stood between all of us and the terrible plague that threatens to engulf us still.
Melissa Weininger is the Anna Smith Fine Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Rice University. She writes frequently about literature, identity, and nationalism.