The Common Good

From Frozen Rebellion to Flowering Seed

090626-sproutAs the band of runaway Israelite slaves wander in their search for freedom, again and again they grow rebellious. In the greatest of these rebellions, Korach criticizes Moses, claiming "The whole community is holy -- all of them! Why do you, Moses and Aaron, raise yourselves above them?" (Numbers 16: 1-3ff)

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Martin Buber does some interesting work with this, which I'd expand. He starts, "So 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 regardlesss of how it acted. A kind of racist holiness. It could kill, or worship gold, or rape the earth -- it could do anything, thought Korach, and still be holy."

Moses understood that the people had to become holy, always and over and over -- had to act to make holiness out of ordinary life.

Now comes my own part: 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?

And -- this is also my own -- Korach was not entirely wrong, and neither was Buber/Moses. We want the whole people to BECOME holy, but it was not then ready to be altogether and seamlessly holy. (Still isn't.) Korach (whose name means frozen) had become frozen into resisting any leader as if every leader were Pharaoh.

What we want to grow toward is the day when Korach will be not frozen but fluid, growthful -- the day when the whole people will indeed have learned to become holy.


When God has heard Korach out, God says:

Korach, you are right -- but only in potential, only as a seed. You think the holiness is 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, what you need to learn is what it means to become SEED deep in the earth, waiting for the season of your sprouting.

Korach, you are as your name: 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.

Into the earth, Korach. Learn to be seed!

So that is why the earth swallowed Korach.

And that is why the Levites' stick sprouted and flowered, a little later in the story (Numbers 17: 23): Korach's family did learn to thaw and grow.

And so did God, for God learned that the people could be more fully convinced by the flowering stick than by plagues and fires and earthquakes, threats of death.

God grew into a teacher of growth.

How could humanity today grow into the Beloved Community, a sacred society? The way to grow is to reconnect with the earth that we have been poisoning and oppressing. Pray, like Heschel, with your legs - walking consciously on the springy earth. Lie down for an hour of simply breathing, not on a "meditation mat" but on the naked earth, buzzing with grasshoppers and grass seeds.

Let the earth "swallow up" your mind, attune your 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 had learned from the Exodus.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, author of Godwrestling, Round 2, and co-author of The Tent of Abraham.

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