This week's Torah portion opens with the rebellion of Korah and his crew, as well as of Dathan, Aviram and their followers. As we all know, things don't turn out well for the rebels. And yet the "nimshal" (lesson learned) does not seem to be that "you don't mess with God." After all, the parashah continues with several scenes in which Moses and Aaron argue with God and, in one case, actively disobey the divine command. God threatens to destroy the entire community (16:20), and Moses and Aaron mirroring the example of Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah in protesting the injustice of collective punishment. Indeed, they are more successful than Abraham, in that they apparently convince God not to punish even one innocent person, but rather to engage in a targeted assassination of the guilty parties.
Yet the story is not over-in Chapter 17 God tries to move past this incident with a memorial to his destruction of the rebels, but the people rise up against Moses and Aaron, saying, "you killed the people of God." Again God threatens to wipe out the entire nation. In fact, God commands Moses (and Aaron), "Rise up from the midst of this group, and I will instantly wipe them out." Far from "rising up," Moses and Aaron "fall down," stubbornly remaining with their people, and then they go into active rescue mode, with Moses telling Aaron to grab some incense to atone for the people and to stop the "ketzef" (divine wrath) which has already broken out and started to engulf the camp.
Not only do Moses and Aaron disobey God, moreover, they bring incense which has not been commanded. They seem to have become opponents or antagonists to God, ironically in defense of the people who have caused them so much grief. How can this be?
On the surface level, God seems to be internally divided between the desire to destroy sinners, and the desire to forgive the chosen people. This conflict of desires will be developed later in rabbinic theology as the contest between Din v'Rahamim, justice and mercy, and in the Kabbalah as part of the balancing act of the Sefirot. Yet what emboldens Moses to act in defiance of the divine command, and to attack the "ketzef" before it can complete God's stated intention of killing off the people?
In Talmud, Shabbat 88b-89a, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi teaches that when Moses went to the heavens to receive the Torah, he converted the angels from jealous opponents until each "became his friend and handed him something, and even the Angel of Death gave him something"--knowledge that the incense would stop the destruction of the people. Otherwise, how would he have known?
This text is fascinating because it reflects the reality of relationships. We often begin with a posture of skepticism and even antagonism, only to be won over into partnership and then friendship as we come to know each other. At first the angels see Moses as an interloper, but then they come to view him as an ally. Even the angel of death helps him out. An inverse dynamic pertains to God-first God pushes Moses to join him in destroying the people, but then God allows Moses to defeat His planned destruction. This rabbinic image of a God who enjoys being outmaneuvered by "his children" is most famously and boldly stated in the coda to the "tanur shel Akhnai" story in the Talmud Bava Metziah 59b where God laughs "my children have defeated me." Yet this rabbinic idea is an organic growth of biblical texts such as Numbers 17. Antagonists become allies, and allies become antagonists.
What does this all mean for us? Several important things, I believe. First, the divine will is never simple to discern. It often presents first with sternness-a voice of censure and of demands-and then yields to a softer and more compassionate presence. Both images of God are necessary for a balanced religious experience. We need challenge, we sometimes deserve criticism, and we must suffer consequences for our failures. And yet, such a stern world cannot endure. We understand that God creates the world in love, and wishes that we adopt a loving advocacy for those around us. As such, religious leaders need to become competent not only in the commands and demands of the tradition, but also in the defense of those who are vulnerable.
I also appreciate the attention paid here to the cultivation of relationships. Beginning with suspicion and even jealousy, the angels eventually come to love Moses and to help him on his mission. God loves Moses enough to accept his defiance-tacitly accepting that sometimes our friends can help us see a better way to accomplish our goals. This is our task as well-constantly to work on our relationships with one another so that we can become resources of strength, wisdom, compassion and holiness for one another, and for God's people.
This will be my final message to you as your rabbi at CSI. It has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve you and grow together through all of the ups and downs of our collective relationship. I hope that we will stay in touch and remain in each other's lives. I will be passing my CSI e-mail address (and bimah) onto Rabbi Russo, so if you need to reach me, please write me at Rabbi.Abraham@agudas-achim.org. My messages will be continuing in San Antonio, and if you are interested, please e-mail me and I will happily add you to the e-mail list to continue receiving my thoughts on the parshiyot.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham