This week's Parsha is about power struggles and community, victory and healing. It is easy to look back the thousands of years and think that it must have been so different back then. Our imaginations might tell us that this was a devout, grateful group who knew so much and understood what was going on -- after all they saw the Voice of God.
Or one could think that these were an ignorant folk who couldn't find their noses without Moshe's help to point it out to them.
But why would we think that they were very different in these respects from people today? Yes, their language would be different and particular customs would be different, but basically, people are still the same. There is no reason to believe that they were not reasonably intelligent people who, just like people today, could be impressed by what they think they see and hear and who were just as superstitious as people are today. (Not us? What about lucky coins, full moons, Mercury retrograde, ken-ahura, etc?)
In that context, it is interesting to watch the events of our local water crisis. It was lifted earlier this week after a large number of tested wells were found to be clean. One family that lives near the contaminated wells (two new city wells plus one of the off-site control wells) has a well that tested clean early on. However, they wife and children have been sent off to visit out-of-town family and they have contracted with the city to install city water service ($10,000 cost). The husband is still using bottled water and will not eat any of the fruits or vegetables grown in their back yard -- in fact, he uprooted the garden to make sure.
Perhaps the well might prove contaminated next time it is tested.
Yes, perhaps. Now, let's look at some other details. The contaminated wells are reported to stink (like diesel) noticeably when one walks up to them. No other wells have been found to be contaminated. And now the rumors have started. There was a scandal a few months ago when it was learned that the city had sold somebody land over a waste dump without telling him and was required to remove chemical barrels from the area and clean it up. Accusations have run from "they are diverting attention by creating this 'crises'" to "they were incompetent and used the same trucks which carried the leaky (were they leaky?) barrels away from the first site" and so on. The newspapers will not lack for material for a long time on this one.
But what about our well water? Is it safe? Is the water from the city water system safe? If it tests safe today, will it tomorrow? How do you balance fear with daily living? How do you balance belief with cynicism? When are you being safe and when are you being panicked?
We have a large bing cherry tree in our back yard. I planted it 21 springs ago. It was shorter than I was then. Now, it is taller than my two-story house. Most summers, the birds get almost all of the cherries -- it is a great bird feeder for a week or two. I don't spray or do anything special for the tree. This summer, we were able to harvest a very large bowl of the cherries -- it is only the second time we have been able to get more than a hand full. Some summers the weather prevents a large yield, other times our travel schedule has given the birds the first (and therefore only) shot.
The tree sits right outside my favorite bedroom window. From the window, I could see that the birds still got the biggest and brightest cherries on the tree -- and they enjoyed them. Sometimes there were almost a hundred birds in this one tree canopy. They were different kinds of birds of all different colors. Not much noise, not much fuss among them. They knew that cherry season was short and biting as many cherries as possible was the key objective. The cherries were just turning red last Shabbat -- the tree is now bare.
There are lots of clean cherry pits in my yard -- I wonder if the birds eat them clean or squirrels or the dogs? I wonder if any of them will sprout somewhere.
Cherry season is always fun here, even when we don't get to eat many. We do try to get at least one from the tree every year. But cherry season does a lot more for us -- it is a great time to reminisce. We used to have a pet skunk named Apple (striped, like the computer...). She loved cherries with a passion, as do I. In those days, I would buy a case of cherries and put the entire case on the bottom shelf in the refrigerator so that taking a bowl full was convenient. Apple learned (smelled?) that the cherries were there and we had a cherry season ritual: open the fridge door, do what we opened the door to do, remove skunk and close door.
Apple would then take the cherry in her mouth and roll it around my kitchen floor (they roll bees to eat them and cherries are about the same size). Then she would eat it with such gusto and she produced the cleanest cherry pits I have ever seen. And so we remember Apple, and other habits/events she had: tipping a sour cream container on her head, tipping a bowl of popcorn that was sitting on the couch, shaking an instant mashed potato box's contents all over the kitchen floor (found that one as I came down the stairs one morning), the day she got into a bowl of craft feathers, the cat batting at her bushy tail as she drank water, the bleary eyes in winter when the alarm went off and we lifted the covers off of her, the list goes on.
And the telling of these stories becomes more routine each year, but just as sweet. It is interesting to examine how we tell the stories now -- Bill and I know the details, so only parts of the stories get told to each other and pictures and short mind-videos flash as the stories are told and we both nod our heads, remembering. But when we tell them to others who did not know Apple, details end up in strange places, sometimes. And since we can't take as long to tell the stories as Apple took to live them, details are often omitted, though not from our own memories.
As I look at my recounting to you, the editing and summarizing tells more, perhaps, then the details cited. And so it is with Torah -- the details not mentioned, the common memories no longer available, the white space, these things tell almost more than what is written.
This week's Parsha is very much that way. Political intrigue, lots of stuff happening, and lots of details included and not included.
Please join us on June 23rd for an International Shabbat meditation for peace. There have been many studies that show that group meditation can have profound effects on people and the world. So this is an effort to get everyone we can meditating on the 23rd of June -- check out the website: http://www.sabbathpeace.homestead.com/
1. Parsha details: Num 16:1-18:32 ( tri 17:25-18:32 ) [ Haftorah I Samuel 11:14-12:22 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Power struggle with Korakh of Levi and with Datan and Aviram of Reuben, Korakh's earthly/fiery death, descension, twelve rods, first born and tithes.
Oy, what a Parsha. This one isn't a WOW, it's an Oy! And it's not really a surprise -- we had a warning about this in the very first Parsha of this Sefer (book).
Korakh and 250 Priest Wanna-bes challenge Moshe and Arahon. Also, Datan and Aviram and some Reubenites also challenge Moshe, but they are more resistant than struggling. There are two separate incidents/events here and it is not easy to piece the parts apart.
This is the kind of Parsha that gets into where you are on Torah. For fundamentalists, it is a Parsha that requires absolute acceptance -- it takes a lot of explaining about how to really read it. For those who think Torah must be understood absolutely literally or rejected, many may reject it. Timing and events are interesting, to say the least.
And the telling, the listening -- that's wonderful and quite suspenseful. Torah Drama, to be sure. So is Torah being allegorical or simply recounting something that has lived in memory for a long time before it was committed to parchment?
Let's look at some of the features. The Hebrew is very idiomatic -- the phrase "rav lachem" only appears eight times in Tanach (one usage is not idiomatic, the words just happen to be together), five times in Torah and twice in this section. Another idiomatic phrase is the use of ham'at, also used two times in this section. This word is used the same way by Leah when she challenged Rachel about the mandrakes (Gen 30). Otherwise, it is used to indicate less or least three more times in Torah (what the spies should check out, how cities are to be given to the Levi'im, and that Yisra'el was the least among nations in Egypt). It is used six time in the rest of Tanach in a similar idiomatic usage.
Does this mean that this story was fabricated in a later time? No. It could simply be that the story is very ancient (and I will explain some features that support this) and that the retelling of it got more dramatic as time went by and later idiomatic usage became part of the dialogue between the main characters. To me, the "problems" in Torah are part of the proof of accuracy and antiquity. If someone were to write this volume at a much later date, it would have been much more coherent and the points the writer wanted to make would be clear and irrefutable, without "problems" in the text. That is was edited, probably many times, I have no problem with -- that does not detract from the essence that is there.
I believe that it is no accident that Torah is exactly the way that it is -- so that we can layer through it, drash, search, wrestle or whatever. Torah's problems are there for us to dig into and learn what we can so that we can use it for our situations today.
One such problem is Korakh. He is from the house of Levi. And he is a Cohen (at least a Cohen wanna-be), but he is not a son of Aharon. Is this the story of an internal power struggle in the house of Levi?
Korakh and his 250 (a nice round number) have censers and they know how to use them. And Torah talks about the Mishkan of Korakh. Now, mishkan can just mean a house, a dwelling place. Our did Korakh establish his own little priestly practice? And were Datan and Aviram part of Korakh's congregation? Torah refers to "eydat Korakh", so this appears likely.
The telling gets confusing here. Moshe has separate arguments with Korakh and his 250 censer-bearers and then with Datan and Aviram, the powerful and politically-well-connected princes of Reuven. The elders of Yisrael trek along behind Moshe as he goes from place to place. Let's break this down a bit:
Korakh and Datan and Aviram are doing their thing, saying to Moshe (who is not there), "This is enough -- the whole people is Holy, God is in our midst -- who are you to be higher?"
Moshe learns about this. He talks to Korakh and challenges him and the 250 to the censer showdown. Korakh must have been nearby or Moshe went to Korakh's place -- Torah isn't clear. There are two discussions here, the first one ending in "rav lachem" (Enough, sons of Levi!) In the second one, Moshe is asking them why they aren't satisfied with their designated Levi status, do they also want the K'huna, the priesthood? Or is there a particular reason for their actions? Torah records no answer.
Moshe summons Datan and Aviram, who do not come and send back the message: "Aren't you ashamed that you led us out of Mitzrayim to die here? You promised us a great land and we aren't there -- so you want to be our prince?" (We won't come to you, you come to us)
Moshe is angry and turns to God (in the presence of the Elders?) declaring that he has done nothing to them that warrants this attitude.
Moshe turns to Korakh and sets the date for the censer showdown. Torah's tomorrow.
And Korakh and the 250 and Moshe and Aharon stand in the door to the Tent of Meeting with their lit censers.
Then the Glory of YHVH appears and Moshe and Aharon (and others?) pray that the sins of the few not be visited upon all.
Then Moshe goes to Datan and Aviram (Elders in tow) telling them to leave the Mishkan of Korakh. They do, but they then appear, armed, at the openings to their tents, with wives and children alongside (for protection?)
Moshe announces that what is about to happen is not his doing, not from his heart, but from God.
And there is fire and tumult, earth opening its fiery mouths, destruction and so on. Korakh and his men (not his sons according to Num 26) and Datan and Aviram and all of their families and possessions perish spectacularly.
Eleazar, Aharon's son, takes the censers that somehow survived (perhaps left at the Tent of Meeting?) and starts to remake them into a cover for the altar.
The next day, the people blame Moshe and Aharon for killing "a nation of YHVH". Obviously they did not perceive the fiery deaths as from YHVH.
A plague breaks out and kills 14,700 on top of Korakh and company.
The rod ceremony, national healing, where Aharon's rod (Levi) blooms and yields fruit and the others do not. Aharon, as the sole representative of Levi, blooms, whereas the other twelve rods for the land-owning tribes does not. Levi is now unified under Aharon as prince and priest, as is all of Yisrael.
3. Some Observations
The story in this Parsha is about civil war versus civil disagreements. When do brethren cross the line between differences of opinion and war? When do people become so entrenched in their positions, that retreat is no longer possible?
How much of what happened was purely the doings of Korakh and Datan and Aviram? Was any of it Moshe's fault? Obviously, Torah is written from Moshe viewpoint, but even so, let's dig into this a bit.
Korakh starts the ball in action with saying against (not to) Moshe, "Enough! (rav lachem) who are you to be prince?" Moshe answers "Enough! (rav lachem) sons of Levi." (and not my brothers)
Then Moshe says to Korakh, without an answer to his earlier comments, "Hear, I beg you, sons of Levi, aren't you ashamed......? Do you want the Priesthood? And why are you doing this, anyway?" And then Moshe sends for Datan and Aviram and they answer "We aren't coming. Aren't you ashamed....."
Do you think Korakh and Datan and Aviram talked? Might the message in Datan and Aviram's response been, "why should we bother to come when all you're going to do is chastise us?"
By today's teachings on listening, I would bet a considerable sum that Korakh never heard Moshe asking him to talk about things. And since that came so late in the dialogue, did Moshe really want to know? He puts out two barbs and then almost seems to be wondering out loud at why this is happening.
The initial dispute between Korakh's group and Moshe is about his leadership. By now, they have been journeying for at least two years on an eleven day trip. Moshe had told them that the Land would be "flowing with Milk and Honey (very lush and fertile)", which obviously, the wilderness is not. They were happy with the status quo in Egypt, this was supposed to be better. And so on. The usual gripes in Torah. Again, my listening training tells me that something else is really the issue here.
Ah, yes. At the start of this sefer, Moshe was warned about his treatment of the sons of Kohat (Korakh is a son of Kohat, the dull one) The warning was to Aharon and sons "Don't you kheret the clan, the dull, sodden (Kohat) families, from the tribe of Levi." Again, kheret means to cut off, but it can also mean demean, undermine. Hebrew is so powerful.
This particular family carried their part of the Mishkan on foot while the other Levi'im used carts. And how did their tasks compare when they were camped? Sometimes, when our load is difficult, it is hard to recognize that it is special. Kohat's tasks were -- these parts of the Mishkan were too precious to be bounced around in a cart. But did they understand that? Was that their fault or could Aharon have explained it better to them?
Well, we may never know the real causes for this civil war, but we can certainly learn to do more to prevent one around us.
Is what you are saying and doing for a blessing? Does it empower people, facilitate harmony or enable others to feel self-worth. Or do we take people, especially the dull and sodden ones, for granted? Do we remember to let others know that we appreciate what they do for us and for the community? Some sins are acts of omission, rather than commission.
4. Purifying Intimacy
This week's Parsha is about Purifying Intimacy. At first glance, that might be taken to mean Intimacy with the One, since this is a story about Priests -- or is it? Perhaps this is about the Intimacy between souls, between people. Perhaps this is about not saying "I know" when you really don't know what's bugging someone.
There is always a reason for anger. The question of why belongs ahead of the reproach. And if you ask why, be prepared to listen to the answer. And listen for the question inside the answer. It is easy to look back over details and see what the triggers might have been -- it takes a lot more effort to look for them "in the heat of battle".
Torah sets this story in the passage of a day. But then, the darkness and the light were formed in one day. Perhaps that is another part of the shiyur, the lesson. What appears as a day, took a long time to develop. The explosion and fire are quick, the build up is not.
Acknowledge and appreciate the neshamot around you -- purify that intimacy and the intimacy with the One will follow.
1. Incense and Fire: Consider (or watch) a coal as it burns. First the fire must be lit and then it extinguishes -- or does it? The coal will glow for hours. Watch the glow as it light up one part, and then another, and then another. Ash forms and the fire glow moves further inside, deeper and deeper, almost hidden. And the coal is still warm, hot, actually. Touch it with a piece of paper or incense dust and a fire will flash.
2. Healing: Think of someone with whom you have fought. Is the fire out or is it glowing? What can you appreciate about where they are? Can you recognize why they feel the way they do? Do you fan the coal or do they? What can be done lower the heat? If you were in their position, how would you want someone to afford you a gracious exit from the anger?
3. Shalom: What would it feel like to be at peace in the world, especially in Israel. What would it be like for the different people in Israel? What are their concerns? Are we guarding against Kheret? What do we and others need to know to facilitate peace? How can we learn? How can we empower others to learn?
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
And you can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved