A Warning or an Embrace? (Weekly Torah Portion Korach)

A Warning or an Embrace?  (Weekly Torah Portion Korach)

Impressionistic, colourful watercolour painting of a cat reaching out to embrace or hunt a worm, illustrating an idea from Torah Portion KorachWhat do you see in this painting? A warning or an embrace? View it in the light of Korach’s story.

Korach, Datan, Aviram, On and 250 very important people gang up on chief lawmaker Moshe and high priest Aharon. Publicly, they challenge their leaders, saying “How dare you lord it over us, pretending you’re holier than we are!” they say.

Moshe proposes a test. Aharon, Korach and the 250 VIPS will all gather at the mishkan with offerings of incense. God will choose which offering to accept.

The 250 challengers come ready to participate. But Korach himself arrives with a new and bigger group of challengers.

Suddenly, the Divine Presence appears to the entire community. God tells Moshe, “I’ve had it with these complainers. Tell everyone else to move aside, and I’ll get rid of these awful people in an instant!”

The ground splits open, swallowing up Korach, Datan, Aviram, their families, their houses and their property. A fire flashes out of the mishkan and burns up the 250 VIPs holding copper incense pans.

Only the incense pans remain.

Elazar, son of Aharon, gathers the pans, and reworks them into a decorative copper plating for the incense altar. Elazar’s intent is to post a warning: “If you challenge my family, nothing will be left of you but your dishes.”

Some of our more modern Hasidic commentators brush off Elazar’s intent. The copper plates, they say, re-integrate the challengers into the community. The new altar presents an artist’s vision of a community that works through conflict. A community that is not inflamed or consumed by its problems.

Here our Hasidic teachers echo the Book of Psalms, which includes eleven psalms written by the Children of Korach. Though their name evokes a rebellious youth band, the Children of Korach were popular. They sang about their love for God, their hope for protection, the mixed anxiety and joy at a wedding. Their artistic lyrics gave voice to the inner life of the people. They were no longer outsiders – they were insiders.

You don’t need to be a professional artist to pursue healing through the arts. Many of us pursue it every Shabbat. We cook our most flavorful meal. We set a table with our most beautiful tablecloth. We sing, even if we’re not good at it. Surrounded by beauty, we turn our thoughts away from problems. We may even pray for those who hurt us.

This Shabbat, how will you heal? Can you embrace others, even if they challenge you? Can you speak about common human experiences? Share simple arts of food and song? Can you live into your vision of a healed world?

Image: Painting by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2016. Want to read more reflections on the Torah portion Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)? Click here.

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