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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Coming Near


Thoughts of Torah Portion Korach

"And the children of Israel said to Moses, "'We are dying, we are perishing, all of us are perishing! Everyone who comes near, near to the tabernacle dies! Are we ever going to stop dying?""

(Numbers 17:27)

These haunting words are recorded after the terrible story in this week's Torah portion, Korach. Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, attempted a coup. Korach used tricks of demagoguery to drum up suspicion and anger against the Holy Brothers. From the text, we can see that that Moses was heartsick after the accusations. From the moment that Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster until here, his life has been a tough, isolated and an often desperate one. Moses has been the living tissue linking God to the people of Israel, a people rife with suffering, pain, and fear, a people seemingly always on the brink of rebellion so that they might have the freedom to destroy themselves. And Korach thinks that Moses wanted this job. Korach thinks that he wants this job.

The rebellion of Korach and his mates is put down. The earth swallows up Korach and his family. The 250 co-conspirators are incinerated. With great furor, the legitimacy of Moses and Aaron is made manifest.

That haunting coda to this narrative, "we are dying, we are perishing . . ." tells us something deep. The people who spoke these words have become aware of the terrible toll of their rebellion. They think back to the Molten Calf and the Sin of Spies, to the murmurings, the defiance, the constant attacks on Moses and realize the carnage they have suffered - and caused due to all this strife that they have inspired.

It has all been futile, a waste. In the end, they would arrive at the borders of Canaan, bearing a law that would make them noble, that would bestow a dignity upon them that they could have never achieved themselves. Had the people had their way, they would have perished in the desert, massacring each other, or they would have trudged back to Egypt, accepting the chains of slavery. What were they so angry about? These rebellions, the defiance, the fear, suspicion, the chronic unhappiness - where did it come from? What did they really want?

The Bible is literature, not journalism. Whoever shaped this text, whatever mixture of Divine and human that meets your theological fancy, wanted us to see something. They wanted us to see ourselves.

We are all dying and we all will perish. Perhaps our only question is this: with whatever control we do have over our lives, what will we leave in the wake of our few moments here? Wreckage or refuge?

The sorrow, the anger and fear. The self loathing and loathing of others. The projections onto others, the refusal to face the reality of our own being. We perish under the weight of our own refusal to live a life of truth.

It is one truth that is said in different ways. We are each an unfolding mystery. In some moment of piercing grace we realize that at the core there is no one to blame and no one at fault for who we are, because everything has led us to arrive at this moment with the gift of soul and consciousness. We have a singular choice - wisdom or not? The future, or the past? Starting now.

Our wounds unfold with our mystery, inflicted and self inflicted. We have a choice - unfold with healing or fold in upon ourselves with grief?

The mystery unfolds into an open horizon. Do we fill this space with love and kindness, as much as possible, and with courage and righteousness when required? Do we fill it with purpose and service?

"Everyone who comes near, near to the tabernacle dies!" The generation of the desert came near the tabernacle and it filled them. For some, the nearness of the tabernacle filled them with dread for what it required of them. For others, the nearness of the tabernacle filled them with envy because it made them see what they were not. Some were filled with the urge to evade, to blame, to hide.

For others, approaching the tabernacle filled them with a sense of the divine unfolding within, a love and grace of God that might not protect them, but that would accompany them through this rough and uncharted desert. For some, the nearness of the tabernacle made them aware of the community forming around them, a gathering of sojourners and journeyers drawn toward that pillar of light.

The Bible quotes the unquiet ones, who finally see what they have brought upon themselves. "'We are dying, we are perishing, all of us are perishing! Everyone who comes near, near to the tabernacle dies! Are we ever going to stop dying?"

The quiet, wise, loving and courageous ones respond in their hearts, "Everyone who comes near, near the tabernacle lives. And we will never stop living. And when we die, our souls do not die, and we will have left something of beauty behind."


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