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?
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 Midbar, usually called the Wlilderness. Looking deeply at the word itself: M’Dvar – the Place Without Words, or Beyond Words.
That phrase – "Place Beyond Words" -- is one way of understanding the Hebrew "midbar," usually understood as The Wilderness. "Midbar," "mi-d'var," "Without Words," "Far from words," "Beyond words."
The Forty Years of Pregnant Pause (forty are the weeks of human pregnancy, Rabbi Jeff Roth points out) 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 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.
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." Indeed, that Haftarah for this Torah portion hearkens back to that collision between the people demanding a king, versus Samuel and God opposing the demand.
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?
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 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.