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Friday, June 20, 2014

Parshat Korakh: Giving Birth to Compassion

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, and Aviram. These three tribal leaders question the authority of Moses and end up being swallowed by the earth. The parashah then ends with a reminder that the first born of every human being and animal is meant to be dedicated to God. However, the first born [male] of each human being is instead 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. 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 ritual sacrifice.

Surprisingly, there is a connection between these two parts of the parashah. This common thread is 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 simply as "pehter rechem" - the one who 'opens up' the womb.

Korach's demise can be viewed as an instance when the earth – from which God created (gives birth to) human beings in Genesis - opens up its mouth to swallow, or destroy, human beings. The image of giving birth is also that of an 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 I would like to interpret the phrase as "the opening of compassion." This way, I would interpret verse 18:15 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 be compassionate that elevates us, like an offering, to the realm of the holy.

This type of opening is the antithesis of the opening that swallowed Korach and company. In that part of the narrative, the opening is not a natural one, like birth or compassion. Rather, the Torah tells us that the death of the rebels is caused by something that is decidedly outside of the natural order. For the earth to open and destroy human beings is not only outside of the natural order, it is the antithesis of compassion!

The swallowing of the rebels can actually be seen 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 the rebels' excessive drive towards control and domination. However, the rebels are clever, for they couch their demands in the language of egalitarianism: " 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? (Numbers 16:3-4)” However, what they actually desire is not equality, but more power for themselves.

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 creates a fissure in the natural order and that causes the earth to split open and devour the source of this negative energy.

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. This is clearly 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 pehter 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 as a unique human being. This is peaceful and embracing, as is the language 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; we are set free into the world as a force meant to heal, comfort and be compassionate.

In the rebellion narrative the opening is actually a closing that ultimately destroys. Pehter rechem, the opening of the womb, is a true opening that brings life, compassion and holiness 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 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 and free will, as is everything. May we each use the God-given power within us wisely. May we choose compassion over control, creation over destruction, holiness over ego. In doing so we can then truly say that we have learned our lesson from Korach and his followers.

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