Late Reflections on Parsha Korach

Freedom Summer 1964I had just turned five that spring.

It was a murderous summer. That June 21 in 1964, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been a site for a CORE Freedom School. Schwerner and Chaney had held voter registration rallies at the church. For that, the parishioners were punished by a number of white men – led, apparently, by Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price. Their deacons were pulled out of their cars, placed before the headlights, and beaten with rifle butts. Their church was set afire.

Price found a way to arrest the three men. They were released into a trap: Members of the KKK – also policemen – shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and then Chaney, after chain-whipping him. It took forty-four days to find their bodies. It took forty-one years to convict just one of the men responsible for their deaths.

Last Saturday, it was exactly 50 years since the murders. Two of the men – Michael and Andrew were white, and Jewish. James Chaney was an African American.

Men. Human beings who fought for a heroic cause.

The night before that anniversary I asked my congregation: How could any of us respond to this horror but with silence? These are scenes of brutality and beating, of fear and fire, of terror and murder.

The darkness they elicit is complete. We can respond by going numb, to be sure, but we know it: What happened that day was an example of the human capacity to act evilly. There is hell in the world.

Last Shabbat we read Parsha Korach. There are scenes of fire and death in that parsha, scenes of terror. Our Torah does not make it easy for us; it presents us, repeatedly, with devastating scenes. Humanity goes aground, again and again. God hopes for better and doesn’t get it; Moses and Aaron alternately plead for humanity and find themselves appalled, angry, and depressed. Moses even asks God at one point to end his life; he can’t bear the weight of the responsibility he has shouldered.

And despite the many writers at work, the different time periods the Torah reflects, there is often a strangely linear sense to it all. God commands the Israelites to make tassels, to put these tzitzit on their clothing as a reminder to observe God’s commandments and so, be holy.

Immediately after this command is given at the end of one week’s reading, the next begins with Korach’s challenge: Together with Datan and Aviram and two hundred and fifty leaders of the Israelites, he confronts Moses and Aaron: “Too much is yours! The entirety of the community is holy; why do you exalt yourselves over them?”

Have Moses and Aaron presumed, controlled, become despotic?

Certainly, Moses responds with a test and invokes a cruel judgment for those who fail it. Korach and his followers will make an offering together with Aaron. May the earth swallow those who have rebelled without cause.

But perhaps Moses has second thoughts – he asks Datan and Aviram to come to speak with him, to forestall the conflict? They are intransigent. They refuse, launching yet more accusations. The contest is on.

And the conflagration is near. God is enraged by yet one more example of an ungrateful, recalcitrant people. But Moses and Aaron ask: “If one man sins, will you be furious with all?” Moses begs his community to separate themselves from the rebels – is he sensing that the glove he threw down will lead to utter destruction? Datan and Aviram are surrounded by their wives and children; Korach’s family, it seems, is with him. And just as Moses announced, the earth itself opens up and swallows the rebels. All Israel flees at the sound of their screaming and as they flee, fire comes from before God’s presence and consumes the two-hundred and fifty leaders who had stood with Korach.

The next day, in a state of shock, the people accuse Moses and Aaron of causing the deaths they witnessed. Moses can predict the outcome: A wrathful force will literally plague the people. Again, remorseful, aware that his own pride is part of what has led to this disaster, he says to Aaron, go, go quickly. Make expiation.

And Aaron does so. He stands, the Hebrew reads, between the living and the dead.

How on earth do we reconcile a rebellion with the aftermath endured and witnessed by the innocent? Children die in this rebellion. A plague descends on an entire people.

The three men who died a half century ago were not only innocent of any wrongdoing, but heroes. Their cause was just, righteous, moral in every respect. Their killers acted with a brutality that cannot be gainsaid.

In Korach’s story, there is no hero. Torah will not give us an easy answer. Everyone perpetrates; there are victims of pride, of selfishness, of mean-spiritedness.

Korach insists that all Israel is holy just after the Israelites have been told that becoming holy is a constant challenge, just after God insists that they must dress themselves, each and every day, in reminders of their tasks, their responsibilities, the things they must do in an effort to become holy human beings. Holiness is an aspiration; a call, a hope. Korach is no hero: He has forgotten humility, and that makes him willing to claim prerogative. Just wondering: Have we, as a nation, really earned our right to what we possess? Really?

Moses, embattled and exhausted, asks for doom and gets it: “If these men are guilty,” he says, “let the earth open its mouth and swallow them; let the earth itself speak judgment.” We judge harshly, we invoke punishment. Our words have power. In the movie Chocolat, the mayor remarks: “Someone ought to do something about those gypsies in town.” That night, someone sets their barges afire.

I imagine Aaron in the midst of the living and the dead. Where was our beloved peacemaker? He did not stop his younger brother from invoking judgment. He did not go to Korach and the others. He did not speak on behalf of peace; thus, he was left to stand in the midst of a war zone. The smell of fire must have been everywhere. The sounds of screaming must still have hung in the air. He stood between the living and the dead.

And God? God who read Moses’ judgment script and acted it out? God who threatens to destroy (again) the people he saved? God can be appeased by human beings, but God cannot be excused.

It is a story of hell in the world.

A few weeks ago, I was present when a colleague of mine asked her congregation: There is hell in the world: What does liberal theology have to say in response?

Hell has a spectrum – from the rebellions and discontents that build tension and anger and frustration in families, in communities, in church and synagogue. There is hell in our easy judgments.  We call for more time in prison for the murderer or even his death, and one day we read about an attempted execution so brutal that the victim suffers agonies for forty five minutes and dies later of a heart attack.

Our nation goes to war in faraway lands and the children who survive go to work clearing mines and losing limbs.

The spectrum is wide and deep. We have only our tassels. Most of us are not heroes.

But our tassels are signs of hope and commitment. We must strive for holiness in the world. This is how we can, as my colleague said, “love the hell out of the world.” We can create a spectrum of kindness of love, of generosity, of understanding. We can look for opportunities to wear our tassels, to make heaven on earth.

So we must.

Bamidbar: A Book of Failings, A Book of Truth

DesertThe Phoenicians and Philistines were sailing the Mediterranean, conquering coastlines. Semitic tribes traveled across Mesopotamia. Various empires fell (see under “Hittite” and “Kassite”). Troy was sacked in 1250 BCE.

It was a time of grand movements, critical conquests.

Narratives about the heroes of the time are still with us – think of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Egyptian and Assyrian annals glorified powerful kings and offered detailed descriptions of royal victories. Kings were great and powerful and their battles were epic.

What does Bamidbar offer?

The text references ancient texts now lost to us, like the Book of the Battles of YHVH. Fragments of ancient songs and poetry read like models for the Elvish poetry of The Lord of the Rings cycle. “Against Wahab in a whirlwind and the wadis of Amon / and the cascade of the wadis that turns down towards Ar’s dwelling / and clings to Moab’s border” (21:14-15). “Rise up, O Well! Sing out to it. / Well the captains dug, the people’s nobles delved it,/ with a scepter, with their walking stick” (21: 17-18).

On the one hand, we are given a continuation of Levitical and legal concerns, particularly around inheritance, organization of cultic activities, and tribal tasks. On the other, we learn how angry people can be, how frightened. At one point in the story the Israelites claim their relationship to YHVH is so tenuous that if they so much as go near the Tabernacle, they risk being destroyed. On the one hand, we learn how to walk together, how to march; on the other, divisiveness is part and parcel of the march.

The first ten chapters specify the tasks of the Levites and the laws around the Nazirites who become, for a time, lay priests of a sort. The tabernacle is, in an expanded recounting from Leviticus, dedicated and consecrated. It’s hanukkah! (It’s a word: It means “dedicate…”) There is much in the way of strictures to secure the Tabernacle from prying eyes and hands. The first Passover feast is celebrated. It is the beginning of the Israelites’ second year in the wilderness.

Silver trumpets are fashioned at YHVH’s command; these will announce the people’s get-up and go. The tenth chapter, and the first third of B’midbar, ends with a call to arms chanted during Torah services. Kuma Adonai: “Rise up, O Lord. May your enemies be scattered and your foes flee before you!” Now, it seems, all the Israelites have to do is head homeward.

But the next chapter introduces us to what one scholar has called “The Book of Failings.” Manna, which tastes of rich cream, is not good enough for the Israelites. They dream of melons, cucumbers, onions and fish. The people grumble and complain, YHVH is angry and lashes out, Moses intercedes. Places are named after conflict. Taberah, the first instance in the book of this oft-repeated cycle, is Hebrew for “conflagration.” Kibroth-Hattaavah, where the people get sick from gorging on God-given quail, means “Graves of Desire.”

Moses sends off scouts and they come back only to terrorize the people with descriptions of unbeatable giants. Again God is enraged, again YHVH lashes out, sentencing the fearful to wander so that only their descendants, born in freedom, may win the land for freedom.

YHVH tries to bless the people, to remind them to remember the law:

The LORD said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God” (Numbers 15: 37-41).

And then, just after this restatement of relationship and hope, Korach’s desperate rebellion. The earth opens up to swallow pain and discontent, but it is not enough. The plague that follows is a horror: Aaron stops it by an emergency expiation, by standing, as the Torah tells us, “between the living and the dead” (17: 13).

A doctor without borders.

In one single chapter (Num. 20), Moses loses both his siblings. Israel’s dancing prophetess, Miriam, the girl who saved her younger brother so he could save his people, the mature, even elderly woman who brought water and life wherever she went, is buried in a parched wilderness. Moses and Aaron lose perspective and patience. God is prepared to give the kvetching Israelites water from a rock but the two leaders fail the test. They strike the stone instead of making it clear that any waterfall is and must always be God’s provenance and generosity.

One wonders. The sister whose presence guaranteed water is gone. No wonder Moses and Aaron hammer against the rock in their grief and rage. Do they strike out simply because they want their sister back? At the close of the same chapter which describes Miriam’s burial, we read of Aaron’s death. Moses himself must remove the priestly vestments from his elder brother’s shoulders and place them on his nephew.

Then, he watches Aaron die.

The last third of the book tells us about the machinations of war. A foreign seer is sent to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead. The Israelites engage in sexual transgressions with Moabite women and worship alongside the Moabites. There is yet another plague. A transfer of leadership is arranged and Moses stands on a mountain looking into a land he is not permitted to enter. The book ends by apportioning a land yet to be won.

What might we learn from Bamidbar?

Our Torah can be a humble record. Our leaders are not heroes with superhuman powers’s they are flawed, broken human beings. Our people is not a glorious nation, but a bickering, contentious one.

Moses pleads for his people, he defends them, he protects them. He mediates between a selfish, recalcitrant people and a jealous and impatient deity. Talk about the dangers of triangulation. Talk about standing between a rock and a hard place.
He fails, in the end, to find a way out.

Nowhere in our story is there an obvious answer, a clear way out. We live in a world of paradox. Chosen to stand for God’s law, we struggle to observe it. We struggle to interpret it. We are meant to be a nation of priests; most often, we are a nation of dissatisfied malcontents.

Our struggle is human. We are given the mandate to help God’s shefa flow into this world. We are to give, to love, to know and demonstrate compassion and understanding. This is godding, as Jewish Renewalists say. Yet, each and every day we are weighed down by our small-mindedness, by our egos, by the daily and even onerous tasks of living.

At the start of this book, Moses takes a census. We are counted. The book asks: Can YHVH count on us? Can we count on each other? What can we count on?

Korach: Blast Minute Altar-ations

It is a terrifying story, and beautiful. In one moment, we are exalted beyond measure, standing at Sinai, amazed at the gift we have received. We shout out joyfully; naaseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will hear.” We will do and then we will understand.

We leave those heights for what seems a litany of miserable encounters, terrible challenges. We endure a new sort of darkness where we must wrestle as our ancestor Jacob once did – with a Divine opponent we cannot understand, an opponent who gave us the name Israel, God-wrestlers. There are internal, human enemies, as well.

Korach, for example, the lead figure in this week’s Torah portion.  He is, it seems, the quintessential rebel, the brazen upstart. A Levite himself, he challenges Moses and Aaron: Who gave you the right to rule? “You have gone too far! All the community is holy – all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers: 16:3).

Moses falls on his face, prostrating himself and calls for God to decide. Aaron, as representative of the Kohanim, the priesthood Korach seems to covet, is to burn incense in his fire pan. Korach and his followers are to do the same. The Lord appears, and after Moses warns the Israelites to stand aside from the band of rebels, the earth opens and swallows Korach and his family whole. A blazing fire comes forth from the Lord and consumes all two hundred and fifty followers.

As the ashes smoke, God orders Aaron’s son Elazar to gather the fire pans from the charred field and beat them into hammered sheets. These are to be placed on the altar, to serve as a sign, the Hebrew says, though our English translations tend to read “warning.”

Imagine the scene: the charred fields, the screaming, and the cries of grief. More than two hundred and fifty lives had been taken in mere seconds. The earth convulsed, fire immolated human beings. Elazar must traverse the smoking earth to find ritual items used by Korach’s followers for a holy purpose – to make an offering to God. Who is given the task of cleaning those fire pans and beating them into a different form? How does it feel to hammer the copper flat, breathing in the acrid air, hearing the sounds of a terrified people? The tears must have stung as they fell – no matter whose side you were on, what had happened was a disaster. Once again, we lose our own.

According to many commentaries, God appears to have meant for the newly plated altar to remind people of the dangers in arrogance or presumption – this God seems to think such a deterrent is a useful way of regulating the relationship with the people God claims to have chosen. Korach and his band were rebels of the highest order, claiming a purity and holiness the people had hardly begun to achieve. To criticize Moses and Aaron out of envy or arrogance was divisive and destructive. Korach and his followers were trying to tear everything apart; they succeeded in destroying themselves. The fire pans are remade into a warning. Could anyone think to challenge God’s authority again? They need only look at the altar to be reminded of the potential costs.

Perhaps God has yet to learn that humanity cannot be so controlled. Perhaps some of the Israelites watched the altar glitter in the desert sun and came to yet other conclusions. Korach must have been remembered differently than God may have expected, for twelve of our psalms are attributed to the sons of Korach. Midrash claims that the priest and prophet Samuel was one of Korach’s descendents. Somehow, the people did not allow Korach to be erased from memory or history. Today’s parsha, which tells his story, is given his name.

Neither do all commentaries agree (but if they did, that would be a violation of tradition…).  Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893) suggested that the two hundred and fifty leaders who offered up incense on the fire-pans were well-intentioned Israelites who simply wanted to serve God by performing priestly duties. “They longed to do the will of God,” he said, “and gave their lives for the love of God.” Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, and one of the 20th century’s foremost rabbis, claims that the fire pans were made part of the altar in order to remind us of the dangers of complacency and corruption. Legitimacy – even holiness – can emerge from challenging religion.

One must be grateful for the fact that consensus continues to elude us where Tanakh is concerned.

We no longer conceive a wrathful and authoritarian God. Our own history has demonstrated that such a God cannot be worshipped. Who knows? Maybe God had to learn that lesson, too.

Maybe God demanded those platings to be placed around the altar in order for God to be reminded of the essential conditions of relationship between human and divine. The plating was set against the altar so that we remember Korach’s challenge, and what it cost him and his followers, the text says. But consider: This shining metal encased the altar on which the Israelites made their offerings.

We pray, and not infrequently, without commitment or belief, struggling with rage and rebellion. Offerings on that altar were made with the thin, hard shell of resentment present and accounted for. God, Godself, insisted that the Israelites to wrap their holy prayer in reminders of their holy rebellion.

Perhaps because God is acknowledging that our relationship is complex, marked by alternating states of surety and skepticism. Trust and acceptance give way to doubt and agitation, and vice versa.

The line of Korach endures, as it should.