Replace complaints with wonderment


Numbers 16:1-18:32

I Samuel 11:14-12:22

People like to complain. They like to argue. In this modern democratic age, we are used to political debate and arguments being presented by leaders. We have learned to open ourselves to discourse and to consider ideas, person to person.

Let us hope that we form opinions based on logic and take sides based on belief and principle. Then some understanding occurs to decide a “policy.” Everyone may not fully agree with the outcome, but as good citizens, we follow the new law — and perhaps decide to appeal it to a different authority.

Things were much different in the biblical age. Unlike today, God often exerted miraculous power to demonstrate which side was right and from there, well, appeal was tricky. Korach’s argument in this week’s parshah seems a reasonable one, “Isn’t all of the community holy? Why should only one person lead?”

Korach’s rebellion raised some seriously debatable issues, ones that in the 21st century probably would have been responded to much differently than in biblical society. We would have made a proposition for the next ballot, voted, figured out the public will — and that would have become law and practice.

The Israelites did not hold a debate or a vote to assess and determine that Korach’s insurrection was wrong. Rather, we learn that Korach was seeking his own grandeur, not looking to address the people’s needs; he was completely unattuned to God’s will.

Pirkei Avot (5:19) takes this as the portion’s lasting message: “A controversy not for the sake of heaven will not endure … What is a controversy not for the sake of heaven? The rebellion of Korach and his associates.”

To prove this beyond a doubt, God provides two miracles in the course of this week’s Torah narrative, each showing God’s continued support for Moses and Aaron as the Israelite leaders. Korach and his followers get swallowed by an earthquake and then, immediately afterward, 250 other men were also consumed by Godly fire.

God’s will is known. End of story. No revote or court appeal. One could imagine the Israelites falling on their faces in awe, in fear, and in praise of God and God’s miracles.

Not quite. The Torah relates: “But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron” (Numbers 17:6).

Korach’s rebellion had been miraculously put down, and what effect does this have on the people? They revert back to a pattern of grumblings and lack of faith.

I am always amazed. It is not that they seem to doubt the correctness of God’s action. It is not that they want Korach back. They seem to once again doubt God. This is the generation that had witnessed the plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the giving of the Torah, the resting of the cloud of God’s Glory over the tabernacle they had built, the manna, the quail and this crushing of a rebellion. Miracle after miracle, yet they still did not see the Divine Hand acting in their lives.

Their doubt could be our doubt. We can understand and work within a political argument and system, but in the area of faith, we are not always so strong.

Throughout our generations, Jews have tried to explain or explain away the miracles of the Exodus and wilderness experience. Some rationalize them to fit within the context of nature. Early interpreters suggest that the miracles were programmed into creation to occur precisely when they were necessary (Pirkei Avot 5:8).

A different tack comes from Ramban. He suggests that while every miracle can be explained after the event, acknowledging great miracles teaches us to appreciate “the hidden miracles” around us. Everything that happens in our lives is miraculous.

Perhaps the deepest lesson of Korach is not a political one. Rather, the Torah pushes us to cultivate an appreciation for the miracles that surround us. To acknowledge all the incredible miracles we are blessed with in our lives.

May we always have the spiritual vision to see the supernatural in the natural, and the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.