Korach: The earth receives and nurtures what is frozen -- into seed

Moses. Korach.

Up there: a far-sighted leader -- or is he arrogant, a tyrant? Down here, facing him: an ambitious troublemaking rebel -- or is he a democratic visionary?

These issues arise again and again in our own lives, inside us and around us:

Facing down our own rigidity -- to shake our selves into a messy puddle, or to shape a new, more fluid dancing in the world? 

Challenging a father -- to ruin him, or learn to stand alongside, joyful comrades? 

Impeachment -- a tool of ambitious oligarchs to punish bald-faced lies about bad sex, or a tool of courageous citizens to punish bald-faced lies about bad cruelty  — to women who desperately need free health clinics, to young people killed by police racism, to children forced into asthma by dust from a coal-fired plant or whose brains are weakened by lead in their drinking water, to families suddenly shattered when a devoted, hard-working father or mother is deported, to the hungry forced into famine and sarvation by global scorching for the sake of Big Oil’s profits ? 

Are critics -- inner, outer -- traitors, heroes, or something else entirely?

These are archetypal questions, and what makes a Writing sacred is that it demands we face the archetypal questions. The Bible takes up these questions in the story of the forty-year trek through the Place Beyond Words. 

That phrase – "Place Beyond Words" -- is one way of understanding the Hebrew "midbar," usually understood as The Wilderness. "Midbar," "mi-d'var," "Far from words," "Beyond words."

What does it mean to make the Place Beyond Words into a story? 

And -- since we are unraveling hidden truths in the unspoken language of this mythic drama -- why forty years? Rabbi Jeff Roth teaches, all these "forties" -- forty days of rain to bring the Flood, forty days of Moses fasting on the mountaintop to bring down Torah, forty years of Wordless Wildness to prepare us for a land of breast-milk and honey -- are born from the forty weeks of pregnancy. 

Each forty, the time of a pregnant pause. Waiting while history grows toward happening. Forty years in the Place Without Words, Beyond Words. In Hebrew, "dvar" or "dibbur' can be "word" or "deed." To speak is to act. Forty years, a pregnant pause, words/ deeds gathering in the heart, the womb, but yet unspoken, yet undone. 

The Forty Years of Pregnant Pause are barely begun when rebellious Korach, whose name means "Frozen," claims: "The whole community is holy -- all of them! Why do you, Moses and Aaron, raise yourselves above them?" (Num. 16: 1-3 ff.) 

As the story plays out, Korach and those who joined with him in challenging Moses' leadership are swallowed up by the earth. 

We usually understand this as a punishment. 

But not an ordinary punishment. So peculiar that the ancient rabbis commented that the mouth of the earth that swallowed up Korach was one of the special items in the world that God created in that eerie time just after the six workdays of Doing, just before the first Shabbat of Resting. 

This "mouth of the earth" was not exactly Doing, not exactly Resting. Something eerie, in between. A mouth not yet eating, not yet speaking. A mouth of pregnant possibility, created in a moment of pregnant possibility. 

But what was wrong with Korach's challenge? To many contemporary ears, Korach seems a grass-roots communitarian democrat. Whether in secular or religious life, we are suspicious of self-anointed leaders, even those who have a far-seeing vision and decent values. 

During Martin Luther King's lifetime, he was often criticized by the band of little-known grass-roots civil-rights workers who understood his limitations. "De Lawd," they mocked him. They feared that his charisma would distract attention and support from the hard, gritty work of day-to-day organizing. 

Martin Buber asks this same question: Was Korach wrong? Buber certainly criticized such world-renowned leaders of his own day as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, for centralizing power and authority in themselves and in the State. Buber identified with the prophets much more than the kings, and admired Samuel's challenge to the people who urgently demanded that he choose for them a king. As Samuel said, "We have a King -- in Heaven! An earthly monarch will tax and conscript you, will shatter your free communities and your connection with God."

And in his book Paths in Utopia, Buber fervently criticized Marx, Lenin, and Stalin for their centralizing politics, their call for an elite and vanguard party to transform society. Buber instead argued for a transformative politics rooted in decentralized communities. 

So, Buber asks in his book Moses, what's wrong with Korach's position? Don't we -- indeed we !! -- want the whole people to be holy, and not have to depend on an elite?

But then Buber says: Korach thought the whole people was holy regardless of how it acted. It could kill, or worship gold, or rape the earth -- it could do anything, thought Korach, and still be holy.

Moses, on the other hand, understood that the people had to become holy, over and over, forever and always -- had to act and act, do and do again, to make holiness out of ordinary life. 

And in this way Buber explains and justifies the failure of Korach.

But there is more to ask: Why is it Korach's destiny to be swallowed up by the earth? Since the Torah and Prophets almost always see a "punishment" as springing intrinsically from the misdeed, "middah neged middah, " "measure for measure," "reaping what you sow," what do we learn about his misdeed from its result?

Perhaps we should hear between the lines of the story, God speaking to Korach in the moment of crisis: 

"Korach, though Moses is right, you are not entirely wrong. I want the whole people to become holy, but they have not yet gotten there.

"Indeed, Korach, you are right -- but only in potential, only like a seed. You think the holiness already full-grown, fully fruitful. It is not. It is a tiny seed, and it needs time to germinate and grow, time in the womb of Mother Earth. 

"Korach, you need to become seed deep in the earth, growing toward the season of your sprouting.

"Korach, you are what your name says: frozen. You do not yet understand growth, thawing, all the wisdom a seed learns through the winter as the earth thaws and the seed sprouts. 

"Learn to be seed, Korach! Into the earth, Korach! Learn to be seed! Through these forty years of pregnancy, as I carry the People in My belly, as they learn to grow -- you too must learn to grow!" 

So that is why the earth swallowed Korach. 

And that is why, a little later in the story, when each tribe planted its barren stick in the resistant earth, it was the Levites' stick that sprouted, flowered (Num. 17: 23): Korach's family did learn to thaw and grow. 

And the Israelites who had stubbornly refused to learn from plagues and fires and earthquakes, threats of death, responded to the flowering stick of new life. 

God – Who had failed as a teacher by threatening plague and fire -- grew into a Teacher Who can grow through teaching, grow into the Teaching, teach the People how to grow by watching growth.

Can we ourselves grow into teachers who can create the ends we seek through the means we use -- can create new life and growth as a beckoning to new growth and life? 

In a few congregations nowadays, on Yom Kippur the people do what all Israel did in ancient days: prostrate themselves, to become reborn. Even the few who do this whole-body dance do it by sinking down upon a carpet inside a synagogue. Rarely do we do this in such a way as to embrace the earth itself, sink into it, smell the fresh grass, sense a scurrying beetle. 

Yet if we ourselves want to grow our seeds of holiness into a fuller fruiting, perhaps we should invite the mouth of the earth to open for us, let ourselves once more become the adamah (earth) from which adam (the human earthling) can be born. 

Perhaps each week, just before Shabbat, just when the mouth of the earth was first created, in the eerie time that is not Making and not Resting, the eerie time of pregnant pause, we should relearn the holy part of Korach's lesson.


This need not be merely a private, personal, individual act. How could all humanity today grow into the Beloved Community, a sacred society? By reconnecting with the earth that we have been poisoning and oppressing. By praying, like Heschel in a civil-rights march, an antiwar vigil, with our legs — walking consciously on the springy earth. Walking on the earth to face a coal-burning power plant, an oil refinery, that are scorching the earth with the fumes of CO2. 

Let the earth “swallow up” our communal and political mind, attune our politics not only to human justice but to the seasons and the interbreathing of the trees and mammals — for what we breathe in is what the trees breathe out, what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out. We are earthy earthlings.

If we do this fully, this is not just a private personal experience. We learn to share the earth instead of trying to gobble it up. We learn that no one of us, no nation among us, no corporation we have invented, owns the abundance in which we live. This is not apolitical but a new kind of politics, deeply rooted. Our earth-connection will give birth to justice, to peace, to a fuller freedom than Korach -- or even Moses -- had learned from the Exodus.



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