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Destruction and Creation

This week's Torah portion begins with the rebellions of Korach, Dathan, Aviram and their followers. These three tribal leaders question the authority of Moses and end up being swallowed up by the earth.

The parashah ends with a reminder that the first born of every human being and animal is to be dedicated to God. However, the first born [male] of each human being is to be redeemed by the priests and is replaced by the Levites who are to serve in the Mishkan/Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The first born of impure (read:unfit) animals are also to be redeemed, but the first born of cattle, sheep and goats are not to be redeemed for they are to be dedicated to God is through their sacrifice on the altar.

As I thought about this parashah, a connection between these two parts became clearer in my mind. What caused this connection to arise in my mind was the concept of opening. In the rebellion narrative the earth 'opens up its mouth' to swallow the rebels. In the latter passage the first born is referred to not simply as the "bechor", which is the common word used for first-born, but as "pe-ter rechem" - the one who opens up the womb.

The image of Korach's demise can be viewed as an instance when the earth - associated within many traditions (including parts of Judaism) as the maternal source of life - opens up its lips to swallow, or destroy, human beings. The image of the first-born is also that of a maternal opening, but in this case, it is to bring life into the world. Though different Hebrew words are used, the image bears a striking similarity, albeit of contradictory concepts.

One image is of destruction and the other is of creation. Yet, an opening that allows the powerful force of the Divine to enter the world causes both to occur. In one instance, this force kills and in the other, it gives birth. In thinking about this the phrase, pe-ter rechem (one that opens the womb) struck me in another way. Though rechem is the word for womb, it is also the root of the word rachamim/compassion. Keeping this in mind, I have retranslated the concept of pe-ter rechem to mean "the opening of compassion." In that case, verse 18:15 would be translated (or interpreted), as "All things that open up compassion to all living creatures shall be yours to bring near to God." It is opening up to the womb-like quality of compassion within all living creatures that brings us near to God. It is our ability to show compassion that elevates us, like an offering, to the realm of godliness.

This type of opening is the antithesis of the opening that swallowed Korach and company. In that part of the parashah the opening is not a natural one, as is birth or, I would add, having compassion. Rather, the Torah tells us that the death of the rebels is caused by something that is decidedly outside of the natural order. The earth is not meant to open up and swallow human beings. For it to do so is not only outside of the natural order it is the antithesis of compassion!

However, in viewing this narrative from a different perspective I also began to see the swallowing of Korach as a reversal of the process of birth and the opening to and of compassion. For what brings about the opening in the earth is not a natural birthing process or a drive towards creation or compassion, but rather an excessive drive towards control, domination and hegemony on the part of the rebels. The rebels are clever and couch their demands in the language of egalitarianism (i.e. Chapter 16: 3-4, " You have gone too far! For all of the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why do you [Aaron and Moses] raise yourselves above the congregation?") However, what they actually desire is not equality for all, but more power for themselves.

It is their obsessive desire and drive towards leadership, power and control that eventually brings about their demise. It is the power of their desire that eventually causes a fissure in the natural order of the world and that causes 'mother' earth to split open and devour the source of this negative energy. Looking at this from a non-supernatural perspective this incident is about negative human energy causing destruction as opposed to positive human energy (i.e., compassion) causing creation to take place.

In both cases, the image of opening is central, and yet the words used in the text point to different types of opening. In the rebellion narrative the rebels are warned that the mouth of the earth will "burst open" (p-tz-h) in the following verse the earth is then described as "tearing open" (k-r-') to swallow them. In this case, the violence of the language clearly represents a violent and intense response to the violent and intense passion and obsession of the rebels. The intensity of their need to control begets the intensity of their destruction, which represents their ultimate lack of control.

In describing birth, which we all know can also be seen as an intense and even violent physical experience, the verb used (p-t-r) is always implies a sense of separating, removing or setting free. In other word, the opening of the womb separates the fetus from its mother, but it also sets it free into the world as a unique human being. This is peaceful and embracing language. So it is as also with compassion. For when we separate ourselves from the need to control we then open ourselves to the others and allow compassion to separate from us and be set free into the world to heal and comfort.

In the rebellion narrative the opening is actually a closing that ultimately destroys. Pe-ter rechem is a true opening that brings life, compassion and godliness into the world.

We are each capable of opening up to the compassion within ourselves and to birth it into our world. This is what it means to bring God into our world and our lives. We are also capable of focusing so much on ourselves and our perceived needs that we separate ourselves from the power of compassion within us bringing for the intensity of the need to control ourselves and our world. In doing so we then risk forcing an opening to occur which in the end destroys us and those around us closing us off from the world.

It is all a matter of choice on our part, as is everything. May we each use the God-given power within us wisely to choose compassion over the need to control and creation over destruction. In doing so we can then truly say that we have learned our lesson from Korach.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah