When the Earth Gives Way

Thoughts on Korach (5772)
(Num. 16:1 – 18:29)
Dvar Torah given on Friday evening 6/22/12   

I have to admit that, having seen the photo of that car that fell into the earth on Skyline Drive, and hearing of all the other dramatic effects of  Wednesday’s flooding  – it gave me pause to read in this week’s Torah portion at Numbers 16: 32-34 – 

לב וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת-פִּיהָ, וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת-בָּתֵּיהֶם, וְאֵת כָּל-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר לְקֹרַח, וְאֵת כָּל-הָרְכוּשׁ.

32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and all their goods.

לג וַיֵּרְדוּ הֵם וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם, חַיִּים--שְׁאֹלָה; וַתְּכַס עֲלֵיהֶם הָאָרֶץ, וַיֹּאבְדוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַקָּהָל.

33 So they went down, they and all they had, alive to She’ol; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly.

לד וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם--נָסוּ לְקֹלָם: כִּי אָמְרוּ, פֶּן-תִּבְלָעֵנוּ הָאָרֶץ.

34 And all Israel who were round about them fled at the cry of them; for they said: 'Lest the earth swallow us up.' 

I don’t expect any of use gathered here this evening see the events of this week as any sort of divine judgment against anyone of us or our neighbors who experienced property damage in the flooding. 


Rather, we are grateful that despite the power of nature, we have escaped worse harm.  And we take comfort in the caring of friends and family near and far who have checked in with and offered their help.


No doubt --- as with other Biblical accounts where sinful behavior unrelated to the environmental lead to environmental disasters --- our sacred stories that are collected into the Tanakh reflect the natural human awe at the forces of nature.  From a religious perspective, we can experience the awe and the majesty of God’s universe, and we can nurture our spirits through coming together to pray, without having to check our modern, scientific understandings at the door. 


And yet, it’s times like these when we are particularly aware of the precariousness of life.  And it’s times like these when we are particularly aware of how much we rely on our loved ones who accompany us through the journey of life.


We’ve been doing a monthly group aliyah for wedding anniversaries for half a year now.  We celebrate these loving, committed relationships – both as a way of expressing gratitude and as a way of expressing our support for those who are in them.  And we are taking these values with us outside the walls of our Temple as well.


Yesterday evening, several of us went over to the offices of Duluth United for All Families to assist in their phone bank work.  Some of us made calls.  Others prepared and brought dinner for the callers.  This was a way for us, as individuals and as representatives of Temple Israel, to follow up on our congregation’s commitment to work towards the defeat of the so-called Minnesota Marriage Amendment which seeks to deny the freedom to marry to same-sex couples in our state.


Please remember to show up to vote in November, and to vote “NO” when you are asked whether the Minnesota State Constitution should be amended to deny legal recognition in Minnesota to same-sex couples who wish to marry or who, like my own partner Peter and I, are already married under the laws of other jurisdictions that do not discriminate as Minnesota does.  


I just learned the other day, that my colleague Rabbi Michael Latz of Shir Tikvah congregation in Minneapolis recently married his partner Michael in Canada.  Let’s work to defeat this amendment to help hasten the day when Michael and Michael can be treated equally in Minnesota.  And I just read today that former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne were celebrating at the legally-recognized wedding of their daughter Mary and Mary’s partner Heather in Washington, D.C.  Why shouldn’t Mary and Heather’s marriage continue to be protected should they ever decide to move to Minnesota?


But back to this week’s parasha:  In the handout that you received with your prayer book this evening,  you’ll see I’ve copied out there a story from the Talmud found in Massechet Sanhedrin.  It’s a story about On Ben Pellet and about how important his marriage was. Of course, the story probably stems straight from the imagination of the sages of the Talmud. But it’s instructive nonetheless.  What prompted the appearance of this story?  What prompts it is the curious aspect of our parasha that On Ben Pellet is named as one of the conspirators at the beginning of the story (Num. 16:1) – but never mentioned again.  In the full parasha of Korach, we hear about the course of the rebellion and about the fates that befall Korach and Datan and Aviram, but no mention of On Ben Pellet other than the single mention in verse 1.   What happened to him?


And so we learn:


ואון שישב באנינות פלת שנעשו לו פלאות ...

 [He was called] “On” [the Hebrew word for “lamentation”] because he sat in “oninut” /lamentations.  “Pelet” [a variant of the Hebrew  word “Pele” – “wonder”] because “pela’ot”/wonders were done for him. […]

  אמר רב און בן פלת אשתו הצילתו ...

 Rav Said:  On Ben Pelet – His wife rescued him. She said to him: 'What does it matter to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you are just the student.' He replied, 'But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.' She said, 'I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them (Num. 16:3). She proceeded, 'Sit here, and I will rescue you.' She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down within [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance thereto and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated.

(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, pages 109b – 110a)



Well, the particular social circumstances behind that story are rather behind the times.  But what’s striking is the simple recognition that one of the blessings of marriage is having someone we can turn to when we are distressed or upset.  And having someone who can help us return to our better selves – while staying committed to us even when we turn out not to be perfect.


Marriage is not always a picnic in the park – neither for opposite sex couples nor for same-sex couples.  But we always pray that the joys will outweigh the challenges – and that not only our friends and relatives – but also our employers and our governments – will treat us fairly and treat us as equals.

So, Happy Anniversary to all our June anniversaries, and Mazal tov to Mary Cheney and Heather Poe, and kudos to Mrs. On ben Pellet.


Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg, 5772/2012


Posted on June 25, 2012 .