Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Swallow or Cradle? / Korach

Judy Klitsner recently published Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mind and Undermine Each Other (JPS, 2009). Her thesis is that “… if certain gnawing theological or philosophical questions remain after studying one narrative, a later passage my revisit those questions, subjecting them to a complex process of inquiry, revision, and examination of alternative possibilities.” (p. xvi) The result is a chorus of voices coming from the Bible on any one issue. Klitsner demonstrates how Jonah comes as a corrective to Noah’s lack of self, how the midwives in Egypt rewrite the Tower of Babel narrative on the subject of individuality, and how Jethro provides a corrected model of leadership through Moses as against Melchizedek’s influence on Abraham.

Could the same phenomenon occur between Torah and Talmud?

Parshat Korach tells the story of the most notorious mutiny in the Wilderness. Korach, a priest of the tribe of Levi, challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation? (Numbers 16:3) Korach gathers 250 chieftains among the Israelites and stages a full-scale rebellion. The story culminates in the spectacular and hair-raising climatic punishment of Korach and his minions:
Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!” And a fire went forth from Adonai and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense. (Numbers 16:31-35)
The violent end that meets Korach and his comrades is deeply troubling. Could they not have been brought back into the fold of Israel? Was the only possible, or appropriate, response violence? Is the earth, that harbors, shelters, and nourishes life, to be seen as murderous, a global graveyard waiting to swallow alive those who do not tow God’s line?

I see evidence of two correctives in the rabbinic literature.

The first is found in Pirke Avot. While some interpreters have understood what happened to be an earthquake that rent the earth, our Rabbis sought a different understanding of the opening in the earth – va’tiftach ha-aretz et pi-ha va’tiv’la otam / the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them – to have a unique, one-time quality. In Pirke Avot 5:8 they list it first among ten things created on the eve of the first shabbat, at the very end of creation, even after humans were created. For the Rabbis, Korach’s rebellion is foreseen and God prepares for it as the world itself was coming into being. The suppression of Korach and his followers was a one-time event, not a regular feature of God’s interaction with Israel, and certainly not indicative of the nature of the earth itself. I think this is the first corrective.

The second corrective may be found in another account of the earth swallowing up people. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah, the Sages tell us that when Pharaoh attempted genocide against the Israelite baby boys, the pious Israelite women redoubled their efforts to conceive and bring forth babies into the world. As soon as they gave birth, angels cleansed and massaged each newborn, and God provided breast-shaped stones to nourish them with honey and oil. The account continues:
When the Egyptians became aware of these infants, they came to slay them. But then another miracle occurred, for the infants were swallowed up by the earth. At that, the Egyptians brought oxen and plowed the area where they had disappeared. But as soon as the Egyptians left, the infants burst forth out of the ground like grass in the field. As the infants grew up, they came running to their homes in flocks. Later, when God revealed himself at the Reed Sea, these infants [now grown] were the first to recognize God, for they said, This is my God (Exodus 15:2). (Talmud, Sotah 11b; Shemot Rabbah 1:12)
Here the earth is a warm and protective cradle, sheltering the infants against the genocidal shock troops of Pharaoh. While Korach and his minions went shrieking down into Sheol – the shadowy pit beneath the earth where those who die an ignominious death end up – the infants come bursting forth like wildflowers in the spring. While Korach and his followers are erased from the people Israel forever, the infants grow up healthy and strong, return to their families, and are the first to recognize God at the Reed Sea, because they have already experienced God’s redemption – in the warm, loving, protective embrace of the earth.

And how do we approach the world: as swallower or nurturer? Perhaps the Rabbis recognized the danger of seeing the world as ready to swallow us up, and God ready to punish every act of insurrection. We can experience the world as dark and intimidating, danger lurking at every bend, or we can perceive the world as a wide-open wonderland, teeming with life and bursting with blessings. It can certainly be both, but are we not better off presuming that earth – and the life it supports – will be kind, nurturing, and redemptive? When it comes to our relationships with God and other people, is this not the better assumption, so that we can reach out to God and other people, and experience the love and care they have to offer?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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