Parashat Korach: In the Face of Unfairness

Thinking about the loss of Stephen Norwick.

This year, for this community, our very hardest Torah portion arrives during what has turned out to be our very hardest week. The portion and the week both reek of unfairness.

In Parashat Korach, a Levite not of the priestly caste challenges Moses (and, by extension, at least according to the text, God) about why direct access to the divine should be restricted to the priests, or  kohanim. Aren't all the people holy, Korach asks. Moses scolds Korach soundly and sets up a test for him for the following day. And at the moment of the test, the earth opens up, like a mouth, and swallows the challenger, his followers and their families. The remaining protesters are consumed in fire. This, for questioning the order of things.

We moderns - believers in equality and lovers of a just cause - are shocked at this treatment. This is Tiananmen Square - a massacre of those who dare speak out. We can't help but identify with Korach and his followers because we too live in an unfair world. A world where God's law, or Nature's law, stands behind what seem to be some of the most incomprehensible of inequities.

Certainly members of our community felt that way this week at the untimely death of a righteous man: Steve Norwick, a retired professor of Environmental Studies at Sonoma State University, a promoter of getting outdoors, learning your environment, reducing your carbon footprint, taking the bike instead of the car. Steve, on his bike, hit twelve days ago by a car that veered into the bike lane because the driver was drunk or because he had a stroke or - there but for the grace of God goes any of us - because he was momentarily distracted by any of a million thoughts or gadgets.

In any event, something very unfair happened. But of course, what does fair mean? It is in the nature of Nature to be unfair. Life unfolds in this Creation in a way that necessarily pits needs and forces against each other. The Psalm says, "Every living thing declares God's praise." I'd like to believe this to be so, and it is observably so if we conceive of the very desire to live as a song of praise. Because every living thing wants to live. Every mammal and every plant. Every bacteria and virus too. And so life in all its glory unfolds in finite chunks, unevenly distributed. Old age takes one person at 100 and disease takes another at 40. As soon as Creation began Creationing, as soon as the laws of physics and chemistry and biology were set in motion, the stage was set. There would be constant blossoming and constant loss, and to any creature that could separate itself enough from the process to develop a sense of self-awareness (and justice), it would feel horribly unfair.

As Creation's most recent and prolific inventors, we humans have added so many new moving parts to the machinery of Creation. And as any engineer can tell you, the more moving parts, the more things can and will go wrong. We mine and we smelt and we make fire and machines. We dig and dam and hurtle through the air at unnatural speeds. The unfairness of nature becomes magnified, hitting faster and harder and in ever more dramatic ways. Under the right circumstances, even our briefest moments of distraction can now kill.

The unfairness of this world is as old as life itself. One would have to be a fool not to cry out in protest, like Korach, saying, "Are we not all holy? Is God not resident among and within all of us? Don't we deserve better than this?"

No wonder Korach and his people were swallowed up by the earth. Because there is no answer to the cry of "foul" delivered up to God or to the Universe. How can the response of "that's just the way things are" not cause one to sink into a pit of darkness and despair? This is a natural consequence, not an unnatural - or supernatural - one.

The story of Korach, though, has one more twist. After Korach and his people are swallowed by the abyss, the entire Israelite community, now united, speaks up in shock and protest. They are not scared off. They defy authority and resist their fear of the dark and deep and they call out against injustice. And they suffer for it too; a plague takes many of them. But this time Aaron the High Priest defends them against God. There is no storybook ending here. Nonetheless, mostly they survive. They survive to keep going and struggle another day with their lot. That is the meaning of "Israel" itself - those who struggle with God. Sometimes the struggle casts you into a pit, and other times, if you are fearless or reckless or stubborn or lucky enough, you survive.

There is no good answer, no satisfying answer, to the operation of this Universe. With one hand it offers us delights beyond measure - love, beauty, music, dreams, language, poetry, sex, belonging, wondering, discovering. And with its other hand it exacts such terrible payment. Railing against it lands us in a pit of darkness. But those who rail against it anyway are right. We are all holy. We all deserve.

So perhaps the best we can do is to know this Universe. Even when we don't like it. Even when it hurts. To embrace the beauty with whole hearts, even as we maintain our disapproval of life's unfairnesses. As poet Edna St. Vincent Millay says of the ultimate unfairness of death itself:

     Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
     Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
     Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
     I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Let us treasure the memory of a righteous man. Let us appreciate all that grows in our world because he lived. Let us carry on his legacy as we should have been doing anyway. But as for his death, we are not required to approve. And we need not be resigned.