Approaching God
TorahParshat Korach

Approaching God

Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

In the last month I’ve celebrated three b’nei mitzvah, all of whom showed considerable anxiety in stepping up on the podium and opening the ark. This is no big surprise. I still feel a rush of adrenaline climbing the dais, even though I do it every week. It’s bound to be scarier for newbies. That’s why I tell the kids, “Lightning hardly ever strikes on our bimah.”

But these latest youngsters were extra nervous. And this week’s Torah portion validates their fears. Korach and his associates rebel against God and the earth swallows them up (Numbers 16:23-34). Other renegades are burned alive (Numbers 16:35) or die of the plague (Numbers 17:8-15). Not a pleasant story, but the lesson is plain. You want to tread cautiously around the Eternal!

Our tradition offers a double message about visiting the Creator. The Tabernacle, Temple, or synagogue is our meeting point with the Almighty, a place of intimacy (Exodus 25:8). But this week’s haftarah (for Rosh Chodesh) reminds us of God’s remoteness: “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me?” (Isaiah 66:1). When we feel like dropping in on the Eternal, caution is indicated.

The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) makes the warning even clearer. Four sages barge into paradise, with disastrous results: Ben Azzai loses his life, Ben Zoma loses his mind, Elisha ben Avuyah loses his faith, and only Rabbi Akiva comes out unharmed. They peek in God’s window, as it were, and suffer the consequences.

There’s a right and a wrong way to contact God. Hebrew fluency doesn’t hurt: That’s why I drill the children for months in chanting their text. But the bigger piece is empathy: God welcomes those who care for the needy (Isaiah 58:1-7), who prioritize equity, mercy and humility (Micah 6:8). Each of the recent b’nei mitzvah sermonized in one way or another about our responsibility to the poor, the sick and the outcast. That’s your best ticket onto the pulpit.

We are all troubled by the current bloodletting in the Mideast and the resulting revilement of Israel. Jews returning to Zion, seeking to be closer to God, may lose their lives in the process; or non-Jews may lose their lives in a battle provoked by extremists. The current war has more casualties than even our gory Torah portion. The Almighty must be as disgusted now as in the time of Korach. How can we plausibly call on God today?

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about the situation in Gaza. Activists don’t seem to grasp that the Zionists came to the country not as conquerors, but as refugees. Protesters don’t seem to understand that the Palestinians have rejected every peace plan and compromise proposal since the conflict began. On the other hand, we can’t fix the past, we can only fix the future. And fixing it will require a revolution of empathy on both sides.

A minor character in the Torah portion offers the way forward. A man called On is identified as one of the incipient troublemakers (Numbers 16:1), but he drops out of the narrative and is never mentioned again. Modern scholars say this short name is likely a scribal error: But if On is a real person, his defection from the mutiny sets a fine example. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b-110a) speculates that his wife talks him out of it. Mrs. On sees that discretion is the better part of valor; that dodging confrontation can be the most honorable choice, and the safest.

I think many people have given up on reconciliation, on any possibility of a stable outcome in the Mideast. Avdah tikvatenu, cry the pessimists in Ezekiel (37:11), “Our hope is lost.” But of course the Zionist slogan is Lo avdah tikvatenu, “Our hope is not lost.” The problem is complicated: but with patience, we will find the solution. “Turn it and turn it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22): With enough scrutiny, the answer will pop out.

Let’s hope Israeli and Palestinian leaders, like my b’nei mitzvah students, find the courage to seek God with compassion as their road map. More people swallowed by the earth, burned to death or felled by plague, will not strengthen anyone’s claim on the promised land. Our God is the God of justice (tzedek) and its offshoot charity (tz’dakah). We will approach God confidently when we uphold those principles. PJC

Rabbi Joe Hample is the spiritual leader of the Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, West Virginia. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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