Korach: Holy Future

I wake up a few times almost every night. Sometimes my heart is pounding, and other times it’s a general feeling of pent up energy and restlessness like my body needs to move. I know others are going through this too. I’ve talked to many folks over the last several weeks and one thing in common is that people aren’t sleeping. According to one study, fifty-three percent of Americans are sleeping less now than before the lockdown. (You can see my online chat with my friend and congregant, Dr. Eli Handel, who is a sleep specialist on sleep tips if you are interested.) The insomnia endures even after the technical end of many shutdown policies. It’s a very strange feeling to have your eyes so tired you can’t open them, and your heart racing so fast that you feel the need to move, it’s like your body is  experiencing a form of anomia, sending you two conflicting messages at the same time.  

One thing is for sure, though, most people when asked what keeps them up at night, is the fear of the future.  

The future is always unknown, and what is unknown is what scares us. Anxiety is almost never driven by the present; it’s driven by the future. It’s strange isn’t it? That a world we don’t know and have yet to experience is the one whose commanding presence is so strong that it can wake us from our slumber? When you can’t sleep, those thoughts are almost always negative.  Whether it is a fear of losing a job, or the fear of losing a loved one, or the fear of being profiled, or even the fear of just not being enough, not earning enough, not being famous enough, not being loved enough, or just not living your best life – that keeps us awake.  Whether it is the fear of losing something or not gaining something else, it is the future that fuels the fear in us.

The future is always unknown. It is, in essence, a question to put to us.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, like in the entire Book of Numbers, power, anxiety and the question of the future are in play. After returning from scouting the Promised Land, the Israelites are at their most crestfallen. Only two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, believe that the Land they had been dreaming about is even attainable. The rest of the troop, along with the nation as a whole, feel the certainty of their future is gone. They, like us, become restless, and devolve into open rebellion. Korach, the leader of the rebellion, comes to Moses and says, “You have gone too far!  Everyone in the community is holy, and the LORD is among them, why do you raise up yourselves above the LORD’S congregation?” (Numbers 16:3

There is much in these words. It can be said simply that Korach, who is from the same clan as Moses and Aaron, was jealous of his cousins and wanted the power they had. The Book of Proverbs teaches that “jealousy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30) One can easily argue that something degraded inside Korach to the point where he wanted to be in charge. The Midrash picks up on this idea putting into the words in the mouth of the rebel, “You, [Moses] took the rank of royalty for yourself, and you handed the priesthood to your brother!) (Midrash Tanchuma Korach 4)  It would be simple to understand Korach’s rebellion as simple jealousy and questing for power. I think it goes much deeper. 

Look carefully at what Korach says before calling out Moses. He says, “Everyone in the community is holy and the LORD is among them.” Here is where the language really matters. Korach astutely echoes the words of God back to Moses and Aaron, based on the Book of Exodus, but like all echoes, the words are distorted. In Exodus, God says, “You shall be to me a nation of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6) Look carefully: in Exodus becoming a holy nation is something that is set in the future. The Torah’s language is always laconic, every word intentional and there it says, “You shall be…a holy nation.” That is, holiness is not something you are, it is something you become. Holiness is a dream, and aspiration, a calling from the future. Leviticus makes the clearest case for holiness. There it says, “You shall become holy, because I, the LORD, am holy.” (Leviticus. 19:2)  You are not born holy, but you can aspire to holiness. Like the horizon line, holiness is always situated in the future because it is that dream of a vivid, life-affirming place we all want to go that gives our lives meaning and purpose.  

Korach distorted Exodus by saying that everyone is already holy. Korach’s rebellion is not just one of power, but one of entitlement.  And by shifting the state of holiness from the future to the present, Korach in effect gives up the dream of a better tomorrow. The future in Korach’s eyes doesn’t matter; only winning matters. Holiness, in Korach’s eyes, becomes the tool to achieve power, instead of power being utilized to facilitate a holy life. 

Korach fears a future as much as you or I do. With the Promised Land that now seems too daunting to attain, he turns his angst on his family and tries to take the reins of power. But in doing so, he tries to purchase power with too high a price. Our response to the future as it questions us, is not to answer it in fear, but in faith. Fear projects the worst version of the future, and it is fear that drives us to corruption, to small thinking, and to the anxiety that we take out upon ourselves and the ones we love. Faith, on the other hand, projects the best of ourselves. It says that holiness is still possible out there in future. It says that our Promised Lands are still reachable. Even if the task is daunting, we shall not be daunted, for we know that the future is one that we create together. Korach shows how bad it can get when we give up on the future and let it become the place of our nightmares. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and even Deuteronomy, show us what the future can look like when it is the place of our dreams. 

Shabbat Shalom 

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