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Friday, June 24, 2011

Parshat Korach: Between Destruction and Creation

This week's parashah/portion is Korach (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1-18:32).It begins with the rebellion against the leadership of Moses led by Korach, Dathan, Aviram and their followers. These three tribal leaders question the authority of Moses and end up being swallowed up by the earth.  The parashah ends with a reminder that the first born of every human being and animal is to be dedicated to God. However, the first born [male] of each human being is to be redeemed by the priests and replaced by the Levites, who are to serve in the Mishkan/Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem in their stead. Furthermore, the first born of impure (unfit) animals are also to be redeemed, but the first born of cattle, sheep and goats are not to be redeemed for they are to be dedicated to God through their sacrifice on the altar.

Though it may not seem so at first, there is a connection between these two parts of the parashah. This common thread is found in the concept of “opening.” In the rebellion narrative the earth 'opens up its mouth' to swallow the rebels. In the latter passage the first born is referred to not simply as "pehter rechem" - the one who opens up the womb.

Korach's demise can be viewed as an instance when the earth - associated within many traditions (including parts of Judaism) as the maternal source of life - opens up its mouth to swallow, or destroy, human beings. The image of the first-born is also that of a maternal opening, but in this case, it is to bring life into the world. Though different Hebrew words are used, the image bears a striking similarity, albeit of polar opposites.  One image is of destruction and the other is of creation. Yet, it is an opening that allows the powerful force of the Divine to enter the world in both cases to either destroy or create life.

In addition, the phrase, pehter rechem (one that opens the womb) can be interpreted another way. Though rechem is the word for womb, it is also the root of the word rachamim/compassion. Keeping this in mind, I believe pehter rechem can be interpreted as  "the opening of compassion." In that case, verse 18:15 would be translated (or interpreted), as "All things that open up compassion to all living creatures shall be yours to bring near to God." It is opening up to the womb-like quality of compassion within all living creatures that brings us near to God. It is our ability to show be compassionate that elevates us, like an offering, to the realm of godliness.

This type of opening is the antithesis of the opening that which swallowed Korach and company. In that part of the narrative, the opening is not a natural one, as is birth or, I would add, having compassion. Rather, the Torah tells us that the death of the rebels is caused by something that is decidedly outside of the natural order. The earth is not meant to open up and swallow human beings. For it to do so is not only outside of the natural order it is the antithesis of compassion!

The swallowing of Korach can also be viewed as a reversal of the processes of birth and opening to compassion. For what brings about the opening in the earth is not a natural birthing process or a drive towards creation or compassion, but rather an excessive drive towards control, domination and hegemony on the part of the rebels. The rebels are clever; they couch their demands in the language of egalitarianism (i.e. Chapter 16: 3-4, " You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why do you [Aaron and Moses] raise yourselves above the congregation?") However, what they actually desire is not equality for all, but more power for them.

It is their obsessive desire and drive towards power and control that eventually brings about their demise. It is the power of their desire that eventually causes a fissure in the natural order of the world and that causes 'mother' earth to split open and devour the source of this negative energy. Looking at this from a non-supernatural perspective this incident is about negative human energy causing destruction as opposed to positive human energy (i.e., compassion) causing creation to take place.

In both cases, the image of opening is central, and yet the words used in the text point to different types of opening. In the rebellion narrative the rebels are warned that the mouth of the earth will "burst open" (p-tz-h).  The earth is then described as "tearing open" (k-r-') to swallow the rebels. The violence of this language clearly befits a violent and intense response to the violent and intense passion and obsession of the rebels. The intensity of their need to control begets the intensity of their destruction, which ultimately represents their lack of control.

In describing birth, which we know is an intense, and even violent, physical experience, the verb used (p-t-r) always implies a sense of separating, removing or setting free. In other word, the opening of the womb separates the fetus from its mother, but it also sets it free to live in the world as a unique human being. This is peaceful and embracing language. So it is with the concept of compassion. For when we separate ourselves from the ego’s need to control, we then open ourselves to the others and allow compassion to go forth from within us and be set free into the world as a force meant to heal and comfort.  It is as if compassion takes on a life of its own.

In the rebellion narrative the opening is actually a closing that ultimately destroys. Pehter rechem is a true opening that brings life, compassion and godliness into the world.

We are each capable of opening up to the compassion within and to birth it into our world. This is what it means to bring God into our world and our lives. We are also capable of focusing so much on ourselves and our ego that we separate ourselves from the compassion within us.  we then focus instead on the ego-driven need to control. In doing so we then risk forcing an opening to occur which in the end destroys us and those around us, closing us off from the world.

It is all a matter of choice on our part, as is everything. May we each use the God-given power within us wisely to choose compassion over control and creation over destruction. In doing so we can then truly say that we have learned our lesson from Korach.

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