Monday, June 16, 2014


Numbers 16:1−18:32

By Rabbi Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Reconstructionist Jewish Communities

Destruction and Creation

This week's Torah portion begins with the rebellions of Korach, Dathan, Aviram and their followers. These three tribal leaders question the authority of Moses and end up being swallowed up by the earth.

The parashah ends with a reminder that the first born of every human being and animal is to be dedicated to God. However, the first born [male] of each human being is to be redeemed by the priests and is replaced by the Levites who are to serve in the Mishkan/Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The first born of impure (read:unfit) animals are also to be redeemed, but the first born of cattle, sheep and goats are not to be redeemed for they are to be dedicated to God is through their sacrifice on the altar.

As I thought about this parashah, a connection between these two parts became clearer in my mind. What caused this connection to arise in my mind was the concept of opening. In the rebellion narrative the earth 'opens up its mouth' to swallow the rebels. In the latter passage the first born is referred to not simply as the "bechor", which is the common word used for first-born, but as "pe-ter rechem" - the one who opens up the womb.

The image of Korach's demise can be viewed as an instance when the earth - associated within many traditions (including parts of Judaism) as the maternal source of life - opens up its lips to swallow, or destroy, human beings. The image of the first-born is also that of a maternal opening, but in this case, it is to bring life into the world. Though different Hebrew words are used, the image bears a striking similarity, albeit of contradictory concepts.

One image is of destruction and the other is of creation. Yet, an opening that allows the powerful force of the Divine to enter the world causes both to occur. In one instance, this force kills and in the other, it gives birth. In thinking about this the phrase, pe-ter rechem (one that opens the womb) struck me in another way. Though rechem is the word for womb, it is also the root of the word rachamim/compassion. Keeping this in mind, I have retranslated the concept of pe-ter rechem to mean "the opening of compassion." In that case, verse 18:15 would be translated (or interpreted), as "All things that open up compassion to all living creatures shall be yours to bring near to God." It is opening up to the womb-like quality of compassion within all living creatures that brings us near to God. It is our ability to show compassion that elevates us, like an offering, to the realm of godliness.

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