Parashat Korach — 5771 — Living After Tragedy

26/06/2011 at 07:11 Leave a comment

“Living After Tragedy”

 

Parashat Korach

Neil F. Blumofe

25 June 2011

 

On the heels of the national hysteria that gripped the Children of Israel in last week‘s Torah portion as they heard conflicting scouting reports about the Promised Land, we have in this week’s portion, Korach the compelling continuation that rises out of such uncertainty and fear.  After the rebellion of Korach and his followers and their most unfortunate and dramatic end, something more tragic happens – while the ambitions of Korach may have been checked, the terror of the people remains unchecked – and all of them complain and seem to blame the deaths of Korach and his followers on Moses and Aaron saying, atem hamitem et am haShem – both of you have killed the people of haShem.

 

While the people saw the ground open and swallow Korach and they also saw a flame descend from heaven and consume another 250 people who were with the rebel leader, they obviously knew that the deaths took on a cosmic significance and resulted directly from the intervention of God.  According to the great medieval sage ibn Ezra, what the people meant by directly ascribing the deaths of Korach and his followers to Moses and Aaron is that the brothers asked for the deaths of their cousin and his family and followers, directly in their prayers.

 

According to this idea, there was complicity between God and Moses and Aaron – where any threat to the established leadership resulted in dramatic loss of life – the people lost faith in their leaders and looking around, realized that they were all alone, with no advocates and after their time in the wilderness – with no modicum of trust.  They had already heard the anguishing news that even though their destination was in sight, that they were destined to wander for 40 years, because of God’s displeasure at what God considered to be their lack of faith and commitment in scouting out the land – one year for each day of scouting.

 

The people realized that based on this, they were going to die in the desert and thus, they would not enter the land.  Their goals in life were shaken – their dreams shorted out and they would have to adjust to a different life – where their deflated hopes were redirected in a different way, after their rejection.  So, they complained to those right in front of them – and rather than taking it on the chin, just ascribing it to frustration and letting off a little steam – God hears this complaint against Moses and Aaron and sends a plague, after the disaster of Korach, that kills thousands of additional people.

 

This time, as narrated in the Torah, is perhaps the lowest in the entire tradition.  The people are sentenced to death by wandering and it seems that in one fell swoop, they have lost confidence in Moses and Aaron and too, that God has lost confidence in them – they exclaim, hein, gavanu a’vadnu kulanu a’vadnu – kol ha’kareiv ha’kareiv el mishkan haShem tamut ha’im tamnu ligvo’a – look, we perish, we are lost, we are all lost – everyone who approaches closer to the Tabernacle of God will die.  Will we ever stop dying?  And they know that the answer to their rhetorical question is no – they will never stop dying.  They must have been wondering – is there something wrong with us, as a community – why are we condemned like this – how long must we suffer – we try to be good, we try to act with dignity and honorable resolve – and yet, for every step forward we take, we seem to take two steps back.

 

And then to the people, there is a deafening silence.

 

For the remainder of this portion, God addresses Aaron and describes his duty and the duty of his family in the holy precincts.  One can easily read this as the people being blown off by God – that they finally get to where they can’t take it anymore – within a 40 year sentence, there was a failed revolution, and a catastrophic plague and perhaps now, worst of all – disregard of their thoughts and feelings – claims that go unanswered, and when they needed direction and reassurance most, a divine stillness.

 

Or, one can read this that actions speak louder than words – the deeper question that the Torah is asking is, how do we go on after tragedy?  The fact that God and Aaron are now communicating directly after Aaron’s personal tragedy in God’s service – losing two of his four sons, suddenly and without meaning.  At that time Aaron was silent, and now later, he, as a survivor off the deaths of some of his children, acts.  How do we continue after we realize that our dreams in life are unreachable, or naïve, or hopelessly outmoded – that we are stuck in a dispassionate and difficult relationship and the conception that we have had for ourselves, what we were going to be, will not be attained?  Further, now we have commitments that prevent us from making a clean break and starting over – we feel led on, and trapped, and God responds, not with words that will only add flame to an already heated situation, perhaps learning from the earlier tragedy with Aaron, rather, God responds with a redirection that solidifies acting within an established routine of the day.

 

Past heartache, and sadness and even hysteria, God is suggesting that order is restored by reestablishing regular service – certain things may be true – and that, to quote the country music singer Hank Williams, we are not going to get out of this world alive – however, we should not despair, and we should take comfort and find meaning in our regular work.

 

The larger existential questions of existence are still present yet the lessons of Korach guide us in a particular direction – that there is only so much we can do to heal our injuries or break the bonds that hold us tight.  We can aspire to be Korach, or hope to be Moses, yet the rude awakening of our lives is that we are just the stiff-necked people of Israel fated to wander and work.   This recognition can debilitate us or after our initial shock of disappointment in not getting to the ultimate truth or happiness, we can open our hearts and apply our energies to the simple joys of the day, to the small yet profound rewards of appreciating a child’s smile, or a momentary loving touch, or the colors of the sky in a particular moment, or the fragrant smell of the morning air, or the ability to breath, to walk, and to carry.

 

The world goes on with us or without us – and past our own damages, or events that we cannot control, after disenchantment and setbacks, our work is to adjust and then rejoin the rhythms of the universe and in our daily pursuit of justice, peace, and happiness, we can discover if not security, then, a well-lived life.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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Birkat haTefillah Series — Parashat Shelach — 5771 — Offering Our Broken Heart 5771 — Devarim — “Reading a Familiar Story, Rendering it Unfamiliar”

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